Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

music plus poetry doesn't have to be scary

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I've been thinking a lot about Jim Carroll since he died last month. On an impulsive stop into Balfour Books on College today I picked up a copy of his last collection, Void of Course: Poems 1994-1997. (I also bought The Europe of Trusts by Susan Howe, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a New Directions annual from 1950 with work by Paul Eluard, Mina Loy, Henry Miller, Charles Olson, and Kenneth Rexroth, but back to JC...)

I haven't had time to look through the book yet, but I think it's significant that I felt like I had to own Living at the Movies (1973) — which snagged him a Pulitzer nod at the age of 22 — but I hadn't been compelled to look closely at his later work until now. This wasn't really deliberate on my part, but it is still telling. I think there's something that often happens to artists who skyrocket to fame in their youth that makes it difficult for them to sustain a lifelong career at the same level. Adding drug addiction into the mix doesn't help either, obviously, but I believe fame is always complicated, and especially so when it's tied up in pop culture and an artist's physical beauty. I've seen a number of talented, creative people who were successful when they were young struggle to deliver their second or third acts. And I've also seen many who have continued to produce challenging, mature work to an ever-shrinking audience who, like the aliens in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, tend to prefer their "early, funny" material. (And to my mind, there's no small connection between comedy and rock and roll — they both excel when they help release our deepest anxieties and fears.)

Carroll's appeal, for me, is in the tension between his lyricism and his grit. He was of the streets, but he was a moony Romantic as well, and he seemed to swagger through both poses without losing his sense of vulnerability or toughness. A couple years ago, I worked on a TV special with Ron Mann using out-takes from the footage he shot in the early 1980s for his documentary Poetry in Motion. I watched the clips of Jim Carroll again and again and I found him to be both beautiful and tragic in them. In one scene he read a song without a band and he seemed at once electric and frighteningly fragile, one minute fully in control, the next minute losing his place and nearly derailing the entire performance, only to pick the thread back up again. He looked like the kind of creature that inspires both wild love and brutal abandonment. And now he's gone.

I saw some recent photographs of him that were shocking, his face was so changed. But he always had a cat-like elegance that shone through. Following the lead of his ex-girlfriend Patti Smith, he was a pioneer in combining lyricism with punk rock, and his presence was a large part of his appeal — audiences were drawn to him, in part, because he made the nerdiest among them feel cool just by association.

Every once in a while a famous musician will publish a book of poems, but they rarely stand up as much more than adolescent notebook scrawls (sorry Jewel). The best exceptions seem to come from the underground, David Berman being the most obvious example. For what is undoubtedly due to a combination of reasons, the link between the poetry and rock has gotten pretty thin over the last couple decades (rap is a different story), but I'm encouraged by the fact that I run into more and more musicians who read and enjoy poetry. It's good for both art forms to be engaged in a conversation with each other. (One of my favourite poems is Denis Johnson's Heat — "Our Lady of Wet-Glass Rings on the Album Cover" — which reminds me of many late nights spent doing wrong things with guys with good record collections.)

Since the beginning of the year, I've been reading on the first Tuesday of every month with my friend Kate Boothman's band Sunbear, and it's been a good experience, though sometimes terrifying, as the folks who roll up to the bar to listen to music are not always expecting to hear poetry. Thankfully it has reinforced my suspicion that there is a larger audience for poetry than we might think.

On that note (couldn't resist the plug or the pun), I'll be reading at Graffiti's tonight between sets by Nick Taylor (9:30pm) and Sunbear (11pm) if you are looking for something to do.

But first I need to do some reading.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page