Buffalo has been a city for The Arts from almost the time of its inception. We are lucky to have a city that continues to produce artists and writers of the highest caliber. One of those is playwright and poet Justin Karcher. You can catch him doing a set at any one of the many readings around town or see one of his plays now and again. In this interview Justin gives us a little insight about himself and his work.
Fred Whitehead - Your latest book, When Severed Ears Sing You Songs just came out. Where was the book launch?
Justin Karcher - We had the launch party for When Severed Ears Sing You Songs at Alley Cat, located in the tremoring heart of Buffalo blackouts – Allentown. Allen, I should say, as I’m not from the burbs or from out of town. It was, to put it mildly, a rusty bacchanalia. The bar was packed;the News was there and everybody seemed to have had a great time, except toward the end where, predictably so, some of us were swallowed up by hungry whales. In a way, I was like Jonah and the night was filled with a kind of Old Testament angst – all the skeletons came rushing out of closets. Some of us were punished. Some of us were raptured. How poetry should be, I suppose.
F.W. - Stylistically, did you try to go in a different direction when compared to Tailgating at the Gates of Hell, which came out last year?
J.K. - Stylistically, there are a lot of differences between Tailgating at the Gates of Hell and When Severed Ears Sing You Songs. The main one being that I am much more in control of my voice in the latter. Tailgating was a youthful explosion, not to undersell it or anything like that; what I mean is that the poems in Tailgating are the first rumblings of me being confident with my voice, with what I want to say – want being the operative word there. I was discovering myself, beginning to bloom, learning how not to be swallowed up by my streams of consciousness. Thematically, that collection is all about falling into addiction, willingly steamrolling toward self-destruction. When Severed Ears Sing You Songs is more deliberate, what I need to say – a small collection of poems about being addicted in Buffalo and the desire to overcome it – rather than drown in language, the poems are more precise – manifest destiny, let’s say, that doesn’t derail at any point.
F.W. - Do you have any particular formula when putting a book of poems together?
J.K. - So, yeah, When Severed Ears Sing You Songs was terribly thought-out. I had a lot of poems published in 2016 – some are about life in Buffalo, some are not. I wanted another book that was specifically about Buffalo, so I took all the Buffalo poems I had published in 2016 and noticed that there was a narrative thread connecting them all – addiction, demons, overdosing. I focused on those three things and built a story out of them.
F.W. - When did you start writing poetry?
J.K. - Oh man...when did I start writing poetry? This always seems like a copout answer, but it does seem like I’ve been writing as long as I can remember – but I really started to take the whole being a poet thing seriously in high school when I was crippled by my first dance with depression. I got really into the Romantics – Byron, Keats, Shelley – and of course it sounds cliché, maybe even cheesy, but that’s where my whole addiction (there’s that word again) with poetry started: a West Side cerebellum flophouse evolving into a Winchester mansion where there are stairways leading nowhere, where doors swing open and you’re suddenly standing on your tippy toes at the edge of the abyss. What isn’t poetry but a way to acknowledge and then overcome the abyss? Something like that, I think.
F.W. - Your readings, to me at least, seem to fall somewhere between a spoken word performance and what could be called a traditional reading. Are there any poets that you would consider an influence as far as how they present their work or is your style one that came naturally?
J.K. - Thanks for noticing the fine balance I try to strike between spoken word and a more ‘academic’ styling – I think there are merits in both styles, so I try to incorporate both of them when I read/perform. It’s very much a conscious decision on my part – I guess first and foremost, I want poetry in all its forms to be more aggressive. I felt this way before the Trump administration and I’m certainly more passionate about it now, considering DC’s looming shadow that strangles daylight. In other words, we can’t have the arts be forgotten – especially poetry – so I think any performance/reading needs to be theatrically-charged, like a charismatic Sherman Tank of stanzas steamrolling through people’s eyes and ears until it burns and breaks down somewhere in the middle of their taint-y cardiac-land. I want the words that we write and say to stick to souls. At poetry events, I want to be able to hear a pin drop, everybody hung up on words, so, yeah, it’s important to grab attention by any means necessary – and sometimes that includes heavy doses of charm, swaying, hand gestures, plucking petals off flowers you just bought at the intermission of the reading from someone on the street – language is beautiful on its own, but sometimes you have to steroid it up a little bit to make it like a mountain. Of course I’m influenced by the Beats – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, etc. – and how they read/performed – just listen to any of their old clips on YouTube and you can feel their barbaric yawps crawling out of anything – I might be more influenced by musicians/singers – and how they craft charisma into something that is living and breathing – I’m a huge Tom Waits fan and his stage presence is incredible. Then there are singers like Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive In who heavily influenced what I do and how I do it. I don’t know…there has to be an unstrung theatrics when it comes to poetry. Poetry has a hard enough time living from day-to-day. At the very least, it shouldn’t be boring – but that’s my opinion.
F.W. - I've heard your poetry described as being on the dark side. I would say it does lean toward exploring the human condition with sardonic humor. How would you describe it?
J.K. - Ah, I'm so glad you've mentioned the sardonic humor; like that aspect of my work. Humor is such an important part of my work. It really is the backbone, the foundation from which I can build that poetic Winchester mansion I was talking about earlier. Now that I'm thinking about it, I wouldn't say it's really humor that backbones my poetry, but rather self-deprecation - a surgical knife that I turn on myself. We must meet everyday life head on and put autopsies in our eyes, look all that death square in the face and declare, "I'm not perfect, but the abyss is a sitcom these days, a laugh track that we mustn't let beat us into submission. That's what I try to accomplish with my writing. I don't know...everyday life is beautiful and we must acknowledge the raptures that happen every second, the ones that hide out in the shadows and in these absurd times, we must grasp significance wherever we can find it and sometimes that involves breaking yourself down to get to the truth. Poetry isn't about alternative facts.
F.W. - What poets are you currently reading?
J.K. - There is so, so much happening in the Buffalo poetry scene that much of what I read is from local poets. Big shout outs to Ben Brindise, Aidan Ryan (co-founder and co-editor of Foundlings, a great local lit mag that everyone should check out), Megan Kemple, who all have books coming out in the next few months. Love what the Cringeworthy crew is doing and that includes Nathanael William Stolte, Julio Montalvo Valentin, Misty Khan-Becerra and Jen Skelton. Then there's all the exciting stuff that Rachelle Toarmino and Peach Mag are putting out.
F.W. - Do you submit to many journals?
J.K. - Absolutely! I try to submit to 3-5 journals every week.
F.W. - Which ones have published your work?
J.K. - Who hasn't? But in all seriousness...some recent journals that have published my work are 3:AM Magazine, Zombie Logic Review, Devise Literary, The Honest Ulsterman, The Literateur and more.
F.W. - Where can your books be found?
J.K. - Tailgating at the Gates of Hell can be found at Talking Leaves Books, Rust Belt Books, Dog Ears Bookstore and other fine local establishments. You can also order it from Ghost City Press, https://gumroad.com/l/tailgatingatthegatesofhell. I always have a couple copies in my car. As for When Severed Ears Sing You Songs, well, only 100 were made – so they’re kind of special. You can obtain copies from either myself or the Cringeworthy crew. Basically, check out some readings or open mics and any book your heart desires is typically available.
F.W. - You are a playwright also. When did you start writing plays?
J.K. - I started writing plays in college. Basically, it’s all poetry’s fault – one night at some party, it slipped too something nasty in my drink – then it whispered, “People talk in your poems now.” When I came to, it was morning and I was a playwright.
F.W. - Where have your plays been performed?
J.K. - All over the city, including Road Less Traveled Productions, American Repertory Theater of WNY, The Subversive Theatre Collective, Alleyway Theatre and more. I’ve also been slowly stretching my writing prowess into other cities all over the country. My one act play When the Skeletons in Our Closets Choke on Candy Corn premiered in October at The Players Theatre in New York City.
F.W. - Do you have any plays set to debut soon?
J.K. - Yup! I have a one act entitled When Blizzard Babies Turn to Stone that’ll be part of Alleyway Theatre’s Buffalo Quickies. It opens February 23, 2017. About the play: A world premiere. In his drunken stupor Mike believes the love of his life is Medusa... but will his dream turn to stone?
F.W. - Do you write your plays with any particular actors or directors in mind?
J.K. - Not really. I fly by the seat of my pants with a lot of this stuff – for good and for bad.
F.W. - Have you directed your own work?
J.K. - I try not to. It’s nice to have another voice, a fresh set of eyes looking at your words, especially for the stage.
F.W. - Have you acted?
J.K. - Ah, um, yes? I have no range. I’m basically me – and that puts a strange smile on my face from time to time. Then that smile turns into a frown sometimes. Acting!
F.W. - Was it in your own plays?
J.K. - Some monologues here and there, but nothing special. Remember – I have no range!
F.W. - What is your "day job"?
J.K. - Insurance...moving on. Seriously though, I was adjunct teaching, but it's depressing that no institution, it seems, is hiring full time. Oh well - it's mercenary work these days anyways.
F.W. - Are you from Buffalo?
J.K. - Born and bred. Sometimes it feels like I was Frankensteined out of dead Buffalo parts - like my tears are old Canalside water and maybe my eyes are made out of electric chairs and pacemakers. Maybe my heart is the headstone of Rick James. Maybe I'm a superfreak, but I'm all Buffalo - and maybe when I sweat in that nonexistent winter sun, it smells like chicken wings and maybe when I snore, it sounds like the lip smacking of two drunk kids making out at The Pink when the vampires are out. Who knows. My umbilical cord is somewhere out there - I don't know...dangling from the Peace Bridge like mistletoe...sometimes you just gotta make out with your demons and hope for the best. That's Buffalo.
F.W. - Do you do any collaborative work with any other Buffalo Poets?
J.K. - All the time! That's what makes this scene so compelling and invigorating and utterly on the rise. During election season, for instance, myself, Ben Brindise, Aidan Ryan, Megan Kemple, among others, were on the Whistle Stop Poets and Comics ’16 Election Tour. We performed in Buffalo, Rochester, Fredonia, Syracuse and Toronto. It was a resounding success, using poetry as a platform to discuss politics, which isn’t anything new, but we added a frantic grain elevator feel to the words and they went up and down in people’s heads until they busted out the backs – words with wings ready to deliver divine justice.
F.W. - Can you say a few words about Ghost City Press?
J.K. - Wow, well, Ghost City Press. What can I say? I love them. They put out Tailgating at the Gates of Hell and really helped build my momentum. They also brought me on to run and edit their literary journal – and that’s been an absolute blast. More importantly though, Ghost City Press is creating a community of up-and-coming poets and writers, sprinkling their words like pollen into the air and then it’s like they hire these voracious honeybees to carry that vowel-covered pollen to all corners of the country. Kevin Bertolero, the founding editor, came out to the launch of When Severed Ears Sing You Songs – and that meant a lot. He’s passionate about what he does – I guess we all are. Ghost City Press is passion – plain and simple. Kevin sums it up best, “I started Ghost City so that I could publish authors who I loved, and to publish work that I thought needed to be shared.” Poetry that needs to be shared is something that we can all agree with.
Here is a little of Justin's work.
*These poems are from a forthcoming chapbook entitled When Your Life Is Falling Apart, You Turn Your Facebook Statuses into Poetry." ~Justin Karcher
Elegy for 2016 and Maybe the Death of America
New Year’s Eve
And the man on the car radio tells me,
“Good news: you might not be fat;
You might just be bloated.”
Dead bodies are often bloated,
So it seems that being dead
Is better than being fat.
I did eat, like, hundreds of pierogis last night.
I also slept for ten hours.
If anything, I’m bloated on dreams
And if that makes me dead or dying,
I’m okay with it.
I go get a peppermint mocha
Before heading to work
And as I’m smoking in front of Starbucks on Elmwood,
A wave of optimistic nausea hits me:
Despite us living in an age of dead princesses,
We still have the power to be like royalty.
Despite us living in an age
When all our favorite musicians
Are washing up on beaches,
We still have the power
To walk along shores
And find severed vocal cords like seashells
Buried in the sand.
We can still hold them up to our ears
And hear quiet hallelujahs.
Is still beautiful.
The New Year Will Gentrify Us into Better People
The only decision I question from last night
Is why I ate so much shrimp and cheese –
And as I smoke this cigarette shirtless
And the air of a brand new year
Is gentrifying my chest hair,
All I can say is I think everything
Is gonna be okay.
In fact, this might just be the greatest year
Of our lives, because there are cradles
In our hearts and the things inside them
Are sniffling and sneezing. There’s a love
Inside us all learning how to walk
And maybe, if the chips fall where they should,
That love will walk into our lives
And change us for the better.
Self-Destructive People Have a Leg up on Life
Leaving for work today,
I had to brush snow off my car.
There was this woman across the street
Brushing the snow off her car.
However, suddenly I heard her scraping ice off
And I thought, “There’s no ice on my car.
What gives?” Then it hit me:
I got home, like, two hours ago.
I was out. My car never had the time
To dress up in ice.
Stay out late, experience love,
Have fun and maybe the mornings
Won’t be so brutal.
Maybe you won’t be so cold.
There's No Christmas in the Afterlife
On the corner of Summer and Elmwood,
A taxicab driver waves me over,
Because he needs a light.
I ask him how he's doing.
He tells me he's trying to make some money,
So he can be Santa for his kids –
How sad though:
Being a taxicab driver in Buffalo,
In a city where we all drive drunk,
Where we don't believe in death,
In being ferried by a boatman
Across a river of memories.
Santa Claus won’t be coming this year.
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