I don’t want to say I suffered a crisis of faith. But maybe there was a moment, somewhere in the beginning, when it felt like the whole Zygote in my Fez poetry festival was doomed. Maybe doomed is too strong a word. But it did feel, especially in the beginning, that forces in the universe were conspiring to keep one of the biggest happenings of the underground small press from coming together.
In the grand scheme of things of course, this would be nothing new. And of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that forces in the universe had underestimated the resolve of the small press.
My moment of wavering came in the unsung little town of Romulus Michigan. It was in that little town, hunkering just outside Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where my ride, the mini-van belonging to Lynn Alexander, blew a head gasket. A crucial problem we were facing was the gasket had caused the engine to overheat at nearly 5 PM on a Friday night, and there were no garages or rental car outfits nearby that were going to be open until Monday. We had to be in Toledo the next day.
Of course, we wouldn’t have been there so late had we not spent an hour trying to figure out where two of the luminaries who were supposed to be joining us, Franklin Metropolis and Lindsey Thomas, had gone. As it turned out they had gone to Baltimore, and wouldn’t be arriving at Detroit Metro until 11:30 that night. And as it turned out, Lynn and I had bigger problems than that.
Sitting there in the 100 plus heat of the early evening, with a crack-head giving us advice on how we needed to fix the mini-van and Lynn desperately getting nowhere with Triple A because all the locals wanted to go home for the weekend, I simply tapped into that Zen philosophy that Bill Murray so sagely imparted to my generation in the immortal piece of celluloid named Meatballs: “It just doesn’t matter.”
We got the coolest possible tow guy in all Detroit we could have asked for. A black guy named Darryl who basically took us and the mini-van to Toledo for $175. We tipped him an extra $20 so he didn’t have to go by an ATM to get dinner money. Already things were working out.
Later that night, Lynn and I met up with Tainted Coffee/Zygote publisher Brian Fugett and flash fiction writer Josh Olsen, two of the best guys a writer could know. All throughout the night we kept running into older hippie guys, one who was burly and bearded and had a room in our hotel, the Park Inn. We kept running into him in the bars and restaurants and shop walks around the hotel too, but we always just sort of curtly nodded at each other without any real recognition. Another one, named “Old Man Toledo” was someone who approached the four of us at the bar owned by the Toledo Free Press (the major sponsor of the festival) and who was a dead ringer for William Burroughs in a tie dye T shirt. (
Brian was up all night posting videos and notes and when it was time to head over to the festival sight, the Collingwood Arts Center (CAC) at one the next day, he was still feeling out of it so he asked me to drive over there, before first ensuring my California license hadn’t been suspended again.
The moment we stepped out of his SUV and got our first eyeful of the CAC, I sensed I was looking at some kind of cosmic coil; a sublimely camouflaged crux where forces beyond the control of individuals accreted in pools of random, unexplainable purpose. I don’t know how I knew that, I just did.
Having the thermometer pegged at 105 in seventy percent humidity with the occasional flash of lightning across the sky didn’t hurt either. Word was, the arts center, a dilapidated, four story monstrosity that was easily half as long as some city blocks, had been struck by lightning earlier in the week, disabling the facilities’ internet access, pretty much bringing an end to our dream of live streaming the entire festival reading that was scheduled for a marathon 6 hour run that evening.
No matter. The spectacle would go on via tape delay. A gaggle of writers were hanging around the entrance to the center, smoking cigarettes and watching us unload bags of snacks and to carry into one of the meeting rooms. This turned out to be the Boston posse, headed by the Sox jersey wearing Erin Reardon and the hulking mountain that is Dan Provost. They were boisterous and friendly, ready and willing, as many of us were, to finally meet people that we had known over the internet for years but had never met face to face.
That is the large appeal of small press festivals these days. It’s different than it was in the days before the internet, when your impressions of another author or editor were based on old photographs and letters. Now chat threads and social networking personae create impressions and intimacy before there has been a visceral experience in “knowing someone.” And of course not every artistic/creative personality jives with that per se. The act of participating in a community, however contrived, is still an act of courage. A statement that says essentially: “I am,” and “I belong.” The odd factor is that the contrivances, for better or worse, are built up far in advance now.
I carried bags of potato chips and dip into the building and was immediately assailed by a buffet of aromas, and would continue to be throughout the festival: mold, mildew, urine, old wood and the occasional whiff of ganja. This really only added to the atmosphere. People from California often forget how much older the rest of the country is, how much longer things have been going on in the East and the Mid-West then out in the Pacific Time Zone. (For this reason, I personally believe Californians need to get out more.) But here at the Collingwood Arts Center, I was experiencing sensations I knew I could not have back home.
I suddenly found myself meeting people who, for much of my writing career, had seemed larger than life in so many ways: John Dorsey whose smaller frame belies the enormity of his rhetoric; the experimentalist madcap JD Nelson whose mere presence at the proceedings left me star struck. The list goes on: Tim Murray, Patrick Simonelli, Brian Fugett, Michele McDannold: it’s like I was meeting my fantasy football team except they were all fantasy small press propagator team.
Something kept nagging at me about the place, from the moment Michael Grover led me and a couple other poets to the meeting room. During that initial meeting of Zygote and Red Fez editors prior to the main reading marathon, something heavy weighed on me in the room and I felt a wave of nausea roll through me. I thought I might even pass out, maybe it was the heat. I needed to get outside and have a smoke. In my younger years I might have been a nervous wreck in this forum, but the need to cool off and talk to people and make connections was exactly what was required to make the most of this experience. But even an outside smoke and some chit chat weren’t helping me much.
I secured a beer from the concession table by the theater. I then wandered into get my first look at it, and the feeling took my breath away. It could have easily been a satanic grotto of some sort, where black rituals and carnal feedings might have easily gone on for years, though these impressions belied the facilities’ history as a religious academy.
Or did it?
I secured a seat with a few other writers in front of the one giant fan the theater had blowing in from stage right. For an hour or so I took in the readings of other writers; the characters of Tim Murray, the plain-spoken animal of Josh Olsen, the brutal honesty of Craig Firsdon in his wheelchair. I needed to get out and move around, lest the heat and stillness lull me to sleep. I began exploring the Collingwood Arts Center on my own. Somewhere on the second floor, where many of the artists lived, I realized what was nagging me: déjà vu.
This place WAS a grotto. I had dreamed it or something like it many times in the past, a series of long stretching hallways, symmetric and gothic, with endless rooms that in my childhood I had snuck into and gone exploring. I dashed up another flight of stairs, to be met by a similar layout. The smells of old wooden beams and old dark secrets filled my sinuses and then my cranial cavities. Chills ran up and down my chakras. It felt, much like it had in my recurring dreams, that I had brazenly entered into another world, not just cultural or geographical but spiritual. There was not only one, a pair of déjà-vu’s going on here.
I remember sometime when I was six or seven years old my mom and my uncle and several of my cousins were travelling in his van, when suddenly, on a cool wintry afternoon, we took a dirt side road up a hill. None of us younger kids knew what was happening; this hadn’t been in the itinerary of going over to Grandma’s for supper.
At the top of the road there was a large, three story structure that was entirely black. We piled out of the van, and I could see it was black because its guts had burned almost entirely. These days, the fire department would put up barriers and signs saying it was dangerous to go perusing the ruins of a structurally damaged house.
But this was the 1970’s in Spokane, Washington. And it was my family. Curiosity carried the day.
At first my cousins and I stared in wonder at the ruinous spectacle. The house had been very big. And it must have been consumed by a very big pyre. Suddenly, from what was left of a third floor window, my uncle popped out with his arms extended saying “hey, everyone!” Within minutes all of us, including my mom, were perusing the interior of the bottom floor, seeing that graffiti and empty booze bottles were everywhere.
We promptly started going up the stairs just like my uncle had, even though many of the stairs had gaping holes in them. We just sidestepped around them. After 15 minutes or so, and rapidly growing bored, my cousins and I went back downstairs hoping to get back on the road to grandma’s place. I realized I didn’t know where my mother was. I rushed back upstairs, and explored the ruins of the second floor to no avail.
With some trepidation, and suddenly wishing someone had come with me, I climbed up to the third floor. There were two large rooms on that level. My mother was not in the first one. I remember walking down the savaged hallway, coming up to the last room and wondering what I would do if I didn’t find my mom in there. But she was in there. Staring at the walls, and looking at nothing in particular. I remember going up to her and asking her if she was okay. She responded by saying “devil worshippers used to live here.”
I will never know exactly what prompted her to say that at that moment. She would make many similarly dark pronouncements over the next few years before thyroid and lung cancer took her away. And for all I know, maybe she was right. She had always been one to study the study of black arts in any case. But in that moment of childhood impressionability, the entire meaning of that ruined mansion…each stark and scarred room, became a symbol of something larger than what it had previously been. An ornate palace had burned, because of evil. Surely people had died here, because of evil. For a moment my eyes looked at all the writings and scrawling on the wall…once just something some kids did, now they were ancient codes that could unlock the depths of hell.
I couldn’t get out of there and back into my uncle’s van fast enough. It would be days before I could think of anything else other than that house.
Throughout my young adulthood, I held a recurring dream of a house much like the one from my childhood. Although in my dream it was never a burned ruin, but simply abandoned, although it didn’t necessarily feel abandoned. I would always arrive through a secret passageway, either alone or with someone else, but by the time I was climbing the stairs to the different floors and fearfully, but compulsively, exploring the endless procession of dark, musty rooms, I was always alone. There was always at least an echo of dark forces present or having once been present. Often in my mind this would be Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, even though I have actually seen the house that was the Church of Satan, and it was nothing like this place in my subconscious. My subconscious was a far darker and scarier place. Where the real Church of Satan used to sit is a pre-fabricated apartment building.
The Collingwood Arts Center, I realized, was a hybrid of these two places, the burned out mansion from my childhood and the recurring dream house. Granted it wasn’t in ruins or abandoned, but it held the same power as these places. This didn’t freak me out though, as much as it liberated me. There were powerful forces gathered in this place, and despite my hang ups, it was an honor to be here. I was participating in the ritual, not bearing witness to some kind of aftermath or memorial. Instead of feeling like a scared little kid, I felt like my old Deadhead self greeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, as if I had run into them at a hippie festival. The nagging feeling went away, and instead I walked calmly through the dorm halls, into darkened rooms as if I were a ghost who belonged there. Eventually I made my way back outside, in the waning daylight, and had another smoke. Whatever was going to happen in the great grand scheme of shit was going to be fine. Nothing could stop this train from going down the track.
I stopped worrying about how I was going to get where I was going, either on this trip to Toledo or in my life. I was lucky to even be a conscious soul, much less at a gathering of conscious souls. I wasn’t sleepy or nauseous anymore. I was able to engage the poets performing and socializing, and I realized I wanted to, and would continue to engage them in every way possible until the barest hours of the morning. Eventually the time would pass, and I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore, and I would then go home, wherever that might be.
So just for the hell of it, and on several dares, I also found myself Zen enough to take my shorts off every time I went onstage thereafter. If this was going to be one of those rare events in a lifetime, I wanted to make sure me or no one else forgot it. Nothing that is remembered is doomed. Reflect on that ten years after 9/11 if you will.
Girls, Guns & Hot Rods:
by Jami Beck
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