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Friday, September 16, 2011

BOOK REVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Jack Henry CRUNKED. Epic Rites Press, Sherwood Park Alberta, 2011 (113 pages).

Crunked is the second full length poetry collection by Jack Henry. Written in confessional free verse, it documents with astounding honesty the life of a methamphetamine addict flung deep into his own private hell. These are stark, unembellished underground poems which are sometimes highly confrontational in subject matter which Jack Henry explores with uncensored abandon; including- drug use, prostitution and mental breakdown. Most of the poems are written in first person, but Henry adopts a variety of voices and styles in this collection to flesh out his harrowing perspective on life. The persona in most of the poems wavers between the voice of a defiant, never give-in-to-the-system ‘Superman’ while high, and the crushed voice of regret and self recrimination, while down and hanging out for the next line of speed or crack bong.

In his Amazon hype for Crunked Henry claims he wrote the book over three days following a sixty-six hour high. Initially, he did not want to publish it because it ‘was so raw and so personal’. As revealed in a recent interview in Horror Sleaze Trash, he put the manuscript in a box and sent it to Wolfgang Carstens of Epic Rites Press with the intention ‘to get feedback from him and nothing more’ . Carstens wanted to publish the work but Henry felt it was ‘a little too honest’ in documenting this unstable period of his life. In the recent interview with Jack Henry which follows this review, he explains why he finally agreed to allow publication of Crunked after three years:

‘I think Wolfgang wore me down. Initially I sent it to him for his opinion as I have always respected his take on writing. He's never been afraid to tell me I am full of shit or if it is something worthwhile. When he gave me a positive assessment I admit I was surprised…The final decision came when I just decided to do it. Literally threw up my hands and said let's do it. It was minimal process more gut.’

In the Amazon blurb for Crunked Henry also asserts that he is not intent in glamorizing or creating a moral tale- rather he is merely presenting a slice of life: ‘CRUNKED is a nothing more than a narrative. It's neither cautionary nor celebratory, it just exists as a document of experience’. In this review, I will explore what I consider the two main concerns of the collection- Henry’s perspectives on getting ‘crunked’ and on writing.  

 On Getting Crunked

The Urban Dictionary offers many definitions of what ‘crunked’ means. The general consensus is that it is about ‘getting really crazy and fucked up at the same time’ usually by mixing drugs and alcohol.

The main hit of this book is certainly focused on Jack Henry’s frenetic and unrelenting quest for methamphetamine in its various forms.  Over dozens of  intricately woven poems, Henry credibly represents the manic speed-driven quest for drugs and sex and the inevitable tragic descent of a tweaker who becomes mired in self delusion, depression and sickness.

The poem ‘Checking out’ effectively captures the poet’s ‘need to escape’ and his sense of urgency in his self destructive ‘search of a whore and enough dope/ to last until my breath finally fades.’ In ‘forgive me father my sins’ he feels ‘the twitch’ and is dealt ‘a little something/ to cut the edge down/ to a manageable burn.’ In ‘sober eyes’ he watches the people on the street from his house and he is bored shitless. He expresses a ‘crack pipe epiphany’: ‘lines before me/ a rolled bill in hand/ i prefer the blindness/ of amphetamine/ to that which sober eyes see.’ In the rare surreal poem ‘on getting a job’ he validates his lifestyle and is determined not to become a whore to the mainstream: ‘in that chair, in that office, / with those pictures and plaques, / and i know this will kill me quicker than speed, / or nicotine, / or fucking a crack whore.’

In ‘no promises left to keep’ after scoring ‘a purchase i cannot afford’ it is as if a drill bit has split his skull and ‘demons dance atop/ my flesh.’ In ‘underneath skies of diminishing returns’ ‘the voices’ within him are silenced and for a brief moment of illumination everything ‘makes sense’, everything ‘seems/ so clear.’ In ‘containment’ he rolls up a bill and states matter-of-factly: ‘that bitter taste is what makes me whole.’

The poem ‘finding’ probably best describes the potent elixir of empowerment and freedom that the poet seeks: ‘I found freedom/ at the center/ of a rolled-up/ twenty-dollar bill… when i am high i’m a hero, / no one can touch me… when i am high/ i put away worry, i put away Sunday/ live the divine.’ In his first hit as a teenager in his bedroom he proclaims: ‘i became Superman and i thought: / it doesn’t get better than this.’

The hit of the illicit mind-fucking drug also evokes random thoughts, disturbing childhood memories and frightening hallucinations in the poet’s head. In the outstanding title poem ‘crunked’ Henry makes clear his ambiguous take on meth: ‘speed makes my mind nimble/ makes me breathe as if content/ before i fuck away tomorrow.’ He risks ‘it all’ for the taste, but in the cold light of day he realizes that speed is ‘my pathos dance’ and ‘doesn’t pay bills/ or mop floors/ or bring me flowers when/ I vomit on the couch.’

When Henry steps back and views the direction his life has taken he is greatly startled. Although he has made a conscious decision to pursue his lifestyle, its chaotic, reckless pace amazes him in retrospect. He asks himself a number of rhetorical questions which to the sober reader seem self evident: ‘how did i end up here?’ (‘how did i end up here?’), ‘how did i fall so fuckin’ low?  (‘I’ll just call her bitch’), and ‘when did i fall/ when did i fail? (‘dance then on the grave of a dearly departed’).

In such moments of vulnerability and self reflection, the poet agonizingly expresses his considerable doubts and regrets. In the third person poem ‘equanimity amongst the living’ the ‘old poet’ pain-stakingly realizes that he has ‘tossed away/ everything/ for a taste/ a simple lick.’ In ‘addict’ he views himself like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner ‘as a leper/ a pilgrim/ a corpse lost in a rotting sea.’ In the poem ‘tails hasn’t come up yet’, he graphically sums up the depths to which his life has been reduced to since completing his worthless university degree and getting stuck into the meth:

when I weigh my scale
this is what I’ve got:

internet masturbation
white line inhalation
one round in the chamber
and the distance to watch

In ‘forgive me father my sins’ he makes the stark realization: ‘i never thought i’d be an addict/ i never thought i’d fail completely/ i never thought i’d sit mute and wait/ in front of a television.’ In many respects time has stopped for ‘sad-sack Jack’. Many of the poems in this collection are about waiting. Waiting for the next score, waiting for inspiration, waiting for anything to happen. In ‘discovery and departure’ he waits at a Greyhound bus terminal for a yet unknown destination. He is rootless, in a kind of secular limbo without a center. In the remarkable poem ‘fifteen points without a center’ Henry describes how this waiting is akin to ‘awaiting the church door to open- / my penance is in the waiting.’

The quest for personal freedom and expression obviously have their downsides. To Henry meth brings euphoria, self confidence and an increased libido- but also chaos, disintegration and alienation from family and friends. Many of the poems directly address his ex-wife often in a tone of regret and merging on self pity. In one of the books most powerful poems ‘a slow inching forward’ he admits in the opening line, ‘chaos sits harbored at the center of my soul’ and it feels like ‘a rope cinches tighter/ around my neck’. There is sense of tragedy, of a wasted life, when later in the poem he utters, ‘you have left me/ atop buildings awash in fire/ you have left me/ alone.’

In ‘’ Henry explains to the reader the source of much of his public anger, how he ‘threw in the towel’ after unsuccessfully sending out 237 resumes to find a mainstream job. In ‘novice’ he uses the inventive metaphor to describe his disillusionment, ‘i am/ in denial// dreams ass-fucked and bleeding/ two years gone and 20k more in debt’.  As the interview which follows explains, Henry wrote Crunked  in the context of returning to college in his late 40s to complete an MFA degree with the intention of teaching but he was unable to score a job despite sending off hundreds of resumes. In ‘dance then on the grave of a dearly departed’ as his aspirations ‘fall apart,’ he states bitterly, identifying himself with Icarus: ‘I should never have been a poet/ never went back to school/…never reached so high’.

In ‘future’ Henry realizes ‘there’s no future for me/ not here, not in words/ or pages/ my lies have caught up with me. He closes his eyes and takes the ‘sledgehammer kick’ he vows defiantly: ‘I will never stop running’ towards the next rush. In ‘containment’ he furthers this point, ‘i am not quitting, / when faced with that alternative/ I find contentment// living// right here’. Instead of sitting around a table studying literature, he says in ‘tails hasn’t come up yet’ that ‘I live by the balls’ and ‘it’s my revocation/ my rapture’.

on writing

There are close to a dozen poems in Crunked in which Henry provides explicit insights into his writing process, choice of subject matter and underlying intent. Henry is a frenetic, highly spontaneous writer who gets it down fast and rarely edits his work once it is completed. In ‘paths know no direction’ he describes the origins of one particular poem and how it takes shape in his mind:’ ‘it starts with a title/ not by design/ simple words/ a progression/ a development of sense/ an explosion of light/ burning fire/ seeing through nucleoli/ red blood cells dance beneath/ chemically burned eyes’. In ‘and in the beginning’ he states that ‘poetry’s my main addiction’ but the ‘other one’ ‘finally gets it done’. In ‘last Thursday night’ he furthers the notion that he uses drugs to quell his anxiety and to evoke his creativity. While waiting to be seen by a doctor in a public hospital he takes a hit in the restroom to settle his nerves. In a clever extended metaphor he explains how his ‘poem begins with a thought/ and how these ideas are intuitively reworked in his brain like a snort of meth:

in my head, i see words form line after line-
when they come out i place them on a flat surface
cut the rocks down to powder with the hard edge of a
credit card forming lines on a flat surface
(how many lines make a stanza?)
i roll my last five-dollar bill into a tube and snort
each line back into my skull
rework the poem
in my brain

In ‘wastewater in concrete sewers’ Henry uses a graphic metaphor to describe his pessimistic take on his own writing and the difficulty he experiences in composing his poetry: ‘some days it/ flows/ -shit filled/ wastewater in/ concrete sewers’ // other days/ it’s like trying/ to find a viable vein.’

In ‘and in the beginning’ the poet clearly explains the emotional impact a poem that works will have on him: ‘sometimes a poem kicks my soul/ with steel-capped boots/ a diamond bit tearing my skull/ as breath draws baker’s dust/ to the marrow of my spine’). In the interview which follows Henry makes the observation, ‘The poetry I enjoy is that which surprises or shocks or improves on a form of the past.’

In ‘itch’ Henry sums up his urge to fly, to find ‘my center’ through his risk taking. He comments on how his ‘life evolves like a poem.’ He states that his poetry is not academic or has a well thought out intent, but instead it is built from the ‘bottle/ or spike’ of real experience and reflects his genuine pain:

not a marshmallow academic one,
nor those written
by rebels and
rabble rousers

more like a poem
built from bottle
or spike, or meticulous sorrow
one that wanders without purpose
or function

Jack Henry seeks recognition for his poetry to ‘a level of some renown’ (‘fifteen points without a center’) but he can appear to be self defensive or thin-skinned in his reaction to critics of his work. In one of the best poems in the collection- the complex, multi-layered ‘dance then on the grave of a dearly departed,’ he finds comfort in finding ‘restitution’ in being ‘six feet deep’. There is a dismissive, angry tone in his voice: ‘there are those that do not like/ the way i write…too much sorrow or pity or something/ they cannot comprehend’. He continues as if he has totally given up, thrown his arms into the air in despair: ‘i never said/ i write for you/ never said/ anything, really/ at all.’ This defeatism is furthered in ‘i’ll just call her bitch’ when he cynically states in a moment of self-reflexivity, ‘maybe you haven’t realized/ that this ain’t art.’ Blunter still, is the disdain he shows his readers when he ponders his fallen state and says matter-of-factly: ‘fuck you/ fuck it all/ i’m tired/ out of dope/ out of patience/ out of second chances.’ 

Summing Up

There is always an inherent difficulty in attempting to explain poetry ‘ripped from the heart’ like Jack’s book. I can easily draw associations here and there and create a synthesis of the poet’s ideas, but the significance of a work usually relies on the emotional impact it has on its audience. Much of what Henry writes is, as he says, like ‘a shotgun blast from a fading smile’ (‘no promises left to keep’) and the totality of his poetic achievement is extraordinarily difficult to reduce to mere words. I have been writing book reviews for a couple of years, but Crunked has certainly been one of my most exacting.

Overall, as an ordinary bloke who settles for the occasional weekend beer, I found Jack Henry’s Crunked to be a fascinating, but disturbing read. His redemptive quest for pleasure is self indulgent and essentially rooted in the abandonment of his loved ones and friends. His desire to ‘taste another bump’ and to hunt out anonymous whores ‘in back alleys’ is a repugnant, hedonistic attempt to achieve penance from the deadness he sees around him. (Yeah, I'm jealous). You can understand why the author was reticent in publishing this amazing collection in the first place. Despite the brilliance of his poetry, what local American school board would have the balls to hire such an innovative, subversive thinker?

You can find Jack Henry’s defunct magazine Heroin Love Songs here:

Jack Henry’s blog of poetry and publications:


George, thanks for the opportunity with the interview. I always find these a challenge and for some reason found this one even more challenging than usual. Maybe I over think it, I don't know. My responses below are my fifth or sixth attempt. The first ones felt too thought out, over-analyzed or something.

Your book description on Amazon says that you wrote Crunked in three days and then put it in a box, perhaps never to see the light of day because of its raw, personal nature. Can you describe the process of finally deciding you wanted to publish the work?

I think Wolfgang Carstens (publisher of Epic Rites Press) wore me down. Initially I sent it to him for his opinion as I have always respected his take on writing. He's never been afraid to tell me I am full of shit or if it is something worthwhile. When he gave me a positive assessment I admit I was surprised. Personally, I never thought much of it and I still struggle with its value. The voice of Crunked is somewhat unique to me, in retrospect. It is very much of the moment.

The final decision came when I just decided to do it. Literally threw up my hands and said let's do it. It was minimal process more gut. Sometimes it's hard to let go of something personal, other times not...

You returned to university in your mid 40s to complete a Masters of Fine Arts degree with the hope of becoming a teacher but were unable to score a job. Can you elaborate further on your personal context leading up to the writing of Crunked?

This is the question I had the most problem with, initially. To be honest I don't remember the personal context leading up to the writing. It was two or three years ago. I do know, at the time, my life was a mess. Dabbling in the illegals, not having a significant job, getting shut out of employment opportunities in education.

Ultimately I made the decision to get my MFA to teach. No other reason. Teach. And I thought I had done all the right things to get to that point. I mean if you read the requirements to get employed I had them, plus a ton of other extracurricular activities. The press, the journal, the reviews, the publishing, and on and on. But the one critical, the one I thought I fulfilled through my every day job, failed me. I didn't have the experience as a teacher. Even with glowing recommendations from some significant academics, it just didn't carry. And when the economy first got tossed a great many teachers with more experience than me were in the wind and picked up all the available jobs. A perfect storm of recession to fuck over my goal. So in the end I spent the money, did the work and had a degree I could not do anything with.

I guess my personal context was pissed off. In retrospect, pissed off at myself.

In a recent HST interview you expressed a need to ‘be as honest in your writing as you can
be’. You conclude that Crunked ‘feels a little too honest. But fuck it.’ What sort of responses to your book have you had and how do you feel about the publication four months out?

The responses I have received have been pretty good. Most of the compliments come from people I know or know my work, so I have a hard time accepting those as a true critique. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate them and anyone that forks out the money to buy the book. It is amazing. To the chagrin of my publishers I have always said that if I sell one book to someone I don't know or doesn't know me that is a measure of success. Marketing my own work has always been difficult and I get criticized a great deal for not doing more, but self-promotion is a tough thing.

I am eager to hear more, good and bad.

Crunked is a very confronting book which explicitly discusses drug addiction, prostitution and how you ‘fuck away tomorrow’. If it is as you say ‘a document of experience’ what do you hope your readers will take from it?

This question bothered me as well. My answer changes. The best and most honest answer I have is this: I hope they take something away from it. What that thing is, I cannot say. I never have a specific hope about a written document. I imagine it will play to each reader uniquely. Each reader brings their own perception, their own past to what they read. I cannot control that nor would I, if I could.

Some of your poems such as ‘equanimity amongst the living’, ‘perception to reality’ and others use third person narration. Why do you use this distancing device in an otherwise first person collection?

Voice is part of the moment. Some poems come out first person, some third. I never edit to change voice. Hell, I barely edit at all. The poem as it comes out is how it should remain.

Your book adopts the form of the confessional and includes many references to Christianity. Why the fascination with religious imagery from someone who appears to be an atheist?

Well, one I am not atheist and, two, my fascination is more with others that are conscripted into
believing that a specific religion is the voice and motivation to their existence. I challenge the right of an organization or individual to decide for me how to interpret a given event or experience. In that respect I am very individualistic. Religion was created to solve the issues of the day of a relatively uneducated and ignorant populace. It is a tool to keep people down and oppressed. Religion is an anathema of what spirituality should be and is meant to be. I do not feel to pray or worship a deity when I am the one responsible to resolve my own issues. Putting this responsibility off on belief is in fact irresponsible and, frankly, stupid. Each person has the ability to resolve the issues they exist within, whether it is an event on a grand scale or minor.

I was raised in a Christian household and, at a very young age, rebelled against it. The Christian faith is a part of my background. Organized religion is my enemy.

Most poetry bores the shit out of you. What do you like to read in a book of poetry?

The poetry I enjoy is that which surprises or shocks or improves on a form of the past.

Too many poets are "me-too" and show no originality. I am as guilty of that as any, but there are poets that never progress, never push, never change, never evolve and that is what I see published all too often.

Your magazine ‘Heroin Love Songs’ reappeared for a short time earlier this year. Is it now defunct or does it still have a future, including a print edition?

No Heroin Love Songs is dead. Completely. I have no desire or compulsion to publish.

How is your head now? What challenges await you? Are you still working on your novel Red Lincoln?

Interesting question. In my heart I am done with writing, at least for a public audience, which is not to say I will never publish or attempt to publish again. But there is a spark that has left me. In 2006 I could sit down and write all day, now I can barely focus on a piece. It's just not there. Some say it's writers block but I don't buy into that. I just am done.


Jack Henry