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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Scott Wozniak Crumbling Utopian Pipedream. Moran Press, Las Vegas, 2017 (56 pages)


Scott Wozniak’s latest collection consists of forty free verse post-outlaw poems, some of which originally appeared in staunch small online publications, such as The Beatnik Cowboy, Lummox Press, Rusty Truck, Your One Phone Call, In Between Hangovers and others. The poems are characteristically shit-faced raw and are dark explorations of Wozniak’s world which is littered with an underclass of junkies and hobos who are trapped and who face, like most of us, “a stacked deck”. Wozniak writes brutally and honestly about some of his true life experiences which bleed and weep and shoot up and vomit on every page.

The epigram is by the late, great L.A. poet Doug Draime and gives a heads up to the reader as to the ultimate direction and intent of Wozniak’s collection- that  despite  the chips stacked against him, he has somehow miraculously survived and he now wants to write about his gruelling experiences so others can learn from them:

It’s then you see
the crushing odds
and you know
you have
beaten them.
Somehow. You know
with the certainty
of your continued
breath.

The opening poem “If Only the Good Die Young. It’s No Wonder I’m Growing Old” is a kind of manifesto in which Wozniak establishes his underground credentials. It is a meta-poem in which Wozniak clearly states that the function of his art is to capture the angst of living- “the smashed bottles” & “broken ribs”, his heroin habit & his fuck-you, gunslinger’s attitude:

If Only the Good Die Young,
It’s No Wonder I’m Growing Old

A wilful exercise
in the fine art
of angst.
That’s what I told myself
the smashed bottles,
broken ribs,
and flipped cars were.
I was a player
acting out the part
of a character
submerged
in controlled anger.
I had my shit
Under wraps,
Even when the cops
Knew my name
Better than
The bartenders
At every six a.m.
Hole in the wall
Within walking distance
Of the halfway house.

I was convinced
I’d converted low life
into high art.

A high-speed chase,
a heroin habit,
a gunslinger’s agenda.

These things were part
of the motif
in the composition
I was creating
with bad attitude
fuck you,
I don’t give a damn
hurricane
whirlwinds
spinning
cross-country.

I told myself
I’d honed a craft
most are scared
to perfect,
I was an artist
and felonies
my canvas.

“For every thousand
committed
there’s only one
in the books,”
was the misplaced
pride overheard
falling from my lips.

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)

Wozniak, sees writing as a kind of therapy which has helped him reshape his way through the flames of chaos in his life. In a recent interview online with Marsha Epstein, Wozniak says he was encouraged by his wife to put it out there about three years ago and he sees poetry as “a saving grace” which has helped him put the baggage, “the wreckage” of his experiences behind him.

Wozniak has been through the wringer for decades. After stuffing up badly as a young adult he spent time in prison. In the interview which follows this review, he candidly explained to me the biographical context of his work, “My life as a child was the usual, single mother struggling to raise two boys routine. I had a lot of unsupervised time and as a result did a lot of dumb shit. I started leaving home following the Grateful Dead for long stretches around 16 and was finally gone for good about a year later. So, from say, age 17 to 24 I lived on the road, doing the Kerouac routine, hitchhiking, hopping trains, living on the streets, basically being a hobo. Then at 24 I got caught up in some shit and sent to prison for 4 years. Everything I experienced in my “formative” years definitely shaped my writing. Those years in prison are really where I feel my writing took shape, stylistically. I was able to absorb ungodly amounts of literature and sit down every night to write and attempt to hone the craft. I like to joke that I got my MFA from the Department of Corrections.”

In this collection, Wozniak sees life in terms of a grand struggle and his poems precariously walk the plank between light & dark and between hope & despair. He is in constant battle with himself, his family and society. He describes how he is “shadowboxing the apocalypse”, how the berserker within him “sleeps,/ waiting/ to adorn/ war paint, how he feels “battle-worn”. In the poem “Addicted to Escapism” he writes about minds running wild “trying /to escape/ life, /drowning/ selves/ in chaos”. In “Shrapnel on the Inside” his heart “is war-torn” and he ironically imagines his own death as a “bitter-sweet/ victory".

In an early poem in the collection “Down the Chambers of Madness”, the persona, presumably Wozniak, wakes up every day with the voices in his head telling him, “The world is brutal/ and there’s nothing/ you can do/ to change this.” Yet at the same time there is another voice within the poet telling him to fucking wake up to himself, to reshape those experiences into more positive vibes. He uses an extended musical analogy to conclude the poem:

Every day
when I awake
I must choose
to transform
these amplified
sounds
of despair
into a remix
worthy
of being
the soundtrack
for a person
determined
to dance
through the chambers
of madness
this world
escorts us
down.

The poem “Even If I Don’t Believe, I Must” also explores the thin boundaries between hope and despair but is a darker, perhaps more realistic vision. In pared back but highly metaphoric language, Wozniak wants to break free of his hardened “protective, steel shell” but is wary that it is perhaps only blind faith which will allow that thin “ray of light” to help him “limp through the door of brighter days”:

Even If I Don’t Believe, I Must

In this world
dominated
by darkness,
dirt,
and let downs
I must believe
a ray of light
will break through
the protective,
steel shell
I welded
in despair
around my dreams,
that hope
is alive and bleeding
somewhere
out there
on the border lands,
and that half-a-chance
lies
half-coherent
on asphalt
down
a dead-end street,
fighting to breath,
waiting for me
to pick it up
and put it on its feet,
so we
can lean
battle-worn
on one another,
and limp
through the door
of brighter days.

(reprinted with the poet's permission)

It is in quiet moments of self-reflection that Wozniak tries to make the leap from his troubled past towards a possible new beginning. In poems such as “Every Sleeping Giant Must Wake”, “Hearts on Fire” and “Knee-High Wreckage” he realises belatedly that he has been his own worst enemy and has inflicted terrible damage not only on himself but on the people he most loves.

Wozniak eventually got off the shit and booze and says candidly about this transformation, “I just got tired of the life I was living and at some point made a decision to try to move forward".

The book “is dedicated to those who didn’t make it through.” Wozniak’s powerful four page poem “Numb”, perhaps the best in the collection, is a tribute to his couple of dozen friends who O.D. on heroin & died. The opening stanzas shocks and numbs the reader through its matter-of-fact directness and how the deaths emotionally bowl over the poet:

Numb

When my first friend
to overdose on heroin
died
I threw a fit,
stole booze
from Safeway,
and threw a brick
through the store’s window,
then got shit-faced
alone
in an alley,
‘cuz that’s how he
died.

When my second friend
to overdose on heroin
died
I sat surrounded
by other friends,
pounding
Old Style bottles,
breaking every empty
over my head
to convey
the pain
I felt.

When my third friend
to overdose on heroin
died
I too
was strung out
and figured
the most poetic statement
I could make
was to celebrate his life
by shoving a needle
in my arm.

The title poem “Crumbling Utopian Pipedream” appears to be a cross between the Book of Revelations and the Robert De Niro character Travis Bickle’s anarchistic philosophy in Taxi Driver.  In the poem, Wozniak yearns for a purifying fire which will wash clean all of our sinful ways so that society can be reborn and people can reclaim their souls. When asked about what he was trying to say in the poem, Wozniak emphasises that he is talking about the need for individuals to reinvent themselves rather than to point his finger at the failure of the American Dream: “Basically, despite all the wreckage we as humans create while going through life, we can rise up, overcome and be reborn, should we choose.”

Crumbling Utopian Dream

I dream
of fire
and rubble
dominating
the landscape,
city streets
bathed
in chaos
and confusion,
asphalt
and cinder
baptized
in destruction
as our sins
and self-sabotage
wash down gutters,
rebirth found
in the purge
of a crumbling
utopian
pipedream
that never materialized
into anything
other than pain
and deceit.

From this wreckage
we can start fresh
as the lies,
booze,
Drugs,
death,
$2 tricks,
and trash
recede
in the spectral past,
left behind
with the children
as they climb
from decay
with forgotten
dreams,
hell-bent
on reclaiming
the souls
all us
unworthy
savages
sold off
for scraps.

(reprinted with the poet's permission)

As we have seen, the biblical imagery of the poem is embedded in much of the collection but perhaps is most explicit in the didactic poems “Working on a Breakdown?” and “So Many Choices, So Little Time” where he asks the reader to "let's pretend/ God gave us/ the power/ to create destiny" so we can “overcome/ situations/ the Maker chose us/ to face”.

Recently asked about whether his faith plays an important role in his poetry, Wozniak interestingly commented, "I'm not sure 'faith' is the right word for me. When I hear that term it congers up images of the followers of certain religions. That is not where I'm coming from, I don't take allegory as fact, like most religions. I'm more along the lines of belief of something greater out there and this belief stems from things I've been privy to while in the throes of some serious psychedelic experiences. With that said, I use words like 'God', 'Maker' etc... because a lack of a better term that will convey as precisely. If I were to say 'spirit of the universe', 'higher power', or some such generic term, I feel, people wouldn't immediately connect. So, to answer your question, I don't really think there has been an impact. These feelings/ ideas have been in me for years but I never really tried to get in tune with them until I got sober. I would say sobriety has impacted my writing, for the better, more than any half-baked system of belief I may possess."

The front cover of the book is comic book in form and was designed by Marie Enger.  It depicts three children skipping amongst an urban background of utter decay and on the point of collapse. Asked about Enger’s brief, Wozniak enthusiastically comments, “Marie is brilliant. She popped up on my radar because she did the cover for an issue of Paper & Ink, a lit zine based out of the U.K. I love this mag and own every issue. Anyhow, I was exploring artists, and as soon as I saw her work, I knew she was the woman for the job. I’m always drawn in by cover art, whether it be on a book or album cover, if the cover is badass and I’ve never heard of the author or band, I’m more likely to take a chance on buying it. I wanted to take that idea and apply it to my book.”

You might also find interesting Wozniak’s selfie-poems in which he reveals additional perspectives on his evolving identity, his role as an artist and on the necessity of resilience.  The best amongst these is “Self-made Man”, “Junkyard Hero” and “Chew, Motherfucker”.  

What I like most about the collection, is despite Wozniak’s clichés about coming clean and moving forward and “choosing/ life/ despite/ the sweeping/ blade”, when he eventually becomes sober, as is represented in the collection’s last poem “My Brain Off Drugs”, he is bored senseless and feels more trapped, “more insane/ than days spent/ reveling in the filth/ of the gutter” despite “the promise/ of a good life/ brought about/ by living right”. You can imagine his road to recovery will be on going and there could be lapses amongst his successes. 

This is good stuff by a bloke who has lost it all and who has come back to write about it with his own blood and bile. Wozniak had seen so many of his friends lose it & go down in flames that one day he finally figured it out, “fuck it, I’m going to give this life thing a shot. Somewhere along the line I found out that life is a blessing we need to grab hold of and try to honour as best we can.”



Resources: 

A Look Inside Kindle sample of one poem can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0722CD27R/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492794716&sr=8-1&keywords=Crumbling+Utopian+Pipedream

Listen to Marsha Epstein interviewing Scott Wozniak (1.02.40 minutes). He reads five poems from the collection: “If Only the Good Die Young, It’s No Wonder I’m Growing Old”, “Jesus Got Himself a Chrome .45”, “Crumbling Utopian Pipedream”, “Numb” and “Despite the Sweeping Blade”: http://lawrencehits.com/wp/blog/podcast/scott-wozniak-poet/


Bio: Scott Wozniak is an award-winning spoken-word artist, poet, short story writer, chaos enthusiast, and champion monkey-wrench thrower. He lives in Oregon with his wife, his son, and their dog, Riot.


INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT WOZNIAK  6 JUNE 2017

You have been writing poetry for several years. Why did you eventually decide to publish your stuff? How did you eventually figure out how to find a market for your writing?

I’d wanted to try to publish for years but due to the life I was leading I was never able to get my shit together to actually send anything out to publishers. Honestly, I’m thankful for that because when I look at some of my older work, written under the influence, it’s shit. I don’t think I would have had much luck getting acceptances anyhow. Then, once I got my head out my ass, my wife was always giving me the nudge to give it a shot and reassuring me when self-doubt would take over. The first year or so that I was sending out work it was to the absolute wrong places, places that published stuff I wasn’t too fond of, I just knew they existed and published poetry. As a result, I got a lot of rejections, which I think was a good thing, it made my skin thicken.

As far as finding a market goes, I’m still not sure I have. Yes, it’s true I’ve gotten a little traction here and there with my writing but that didn’t happen until I started taking note of where writers whose work I enjoyed were getting published. At first, I was sending stuff out all over the place to pubs that just do not fit with my particular style/content. The more I searched for and found “underground” venues, where artists I enjoyed and related to were getting exposure, the more luck I began to have with acceptances.

You’re getting it out now, but when did you first develop an interest in poetry?

It started in my early teens to work through fucked up experiences, a cathartic sort of thing, no real craft involved. It was more just stream of consciousness to get the demons out.

Scott, you tend to write about the “darker side” of life. To what extent is your poetry confessional? Do you make shit up? What do you get out of writing?

My poetry is highly confessional, I suppose. I don’t really care for that term though. I prefer confrontational, because what I attempt to do is confront real life shit that sometimes gets ignored or discredited by those who haven’t experienced the “darker side” of life.  Everything I write about is something I’ve experienced or encountered, life as lived.

What do I get out of writing? Shit, I’ve never really thought about that. I guess the most obvious answer is a sense of ease takes over, I can relax once something gets on the page. I’ve noticed that when I don’t write for a while this sort of pressure will build up inside of me, lines will be popping in my head, there’s a certain urgency I can’t fully explain, but I can recognize. It’s almost like how an alcoholic needs a drink or a junkie needs junk. I guess poetry has become my fix.

Do you have a regular routine in getting the word down? How do you usually go about crafting a poem- from its inception to its final draft? Do you do much re-writing?

My routine is pretty sporadic, but I do make myself sit down at least 2 or 3 times a week to write. Usually, I’ll have a line pop in my head and I’ll build on that until there’s too many lines to remember (my memory is shot). Then I will jot it down to use as a starting point for when I get home and get some time later in the evening. From there I let it rip, I will write and re-write until it feels… right. I try not to walk away from a poem until I feel it’s done. At that point, I save it in my files and walk away from it and let a week or two go by before looking at it again with fresh eyes. Then I either make adjustments where necessary or I celebrate cause I got it right the first go round. I’ve found that if I have a poem that just doesn’t work, no matter how hard I try working it, the best thing is to walk away and revisit it after some time has passed. If I’m trying too hard, it’s obvious when you read the piece. It’s like Buk said, “Don’t try.”   

What was your life as a child and as a young adult? How have your experiences shaped your writing?

My life as a child was the usual, single mother struggling to raise two boys routine. I had a lot of unsupervised time and as a result did a lot of dumb shit. I started leaving home following the Grateful Dead for long stretches around 16 and was finally gone for good about a year later. So, from say, age 17 to 24 I lived on the road, doing the Kerouac routine, hitchhiking, hopping trains, living on the streets, basically being a hobo. Then at 24 I got caught up in some shit and sent to prison for 4 years. Everything I experienced in my “formative” years definitely shaped my writing. Those years in prison are really where I feel my writing took shape, stylistically. I was able to absorb ungodly amounts of literature and sit down every night to write and attempt to hone the craft. I like to joke that I got my MFA from the Department of Corrections.

In a recent interview with Marcia Epstein, you mentioned that you sometimes thought of ending your life. What made you choose life in the face of ‘the sweeping blade’.

While I always had a desire to die, I was too chicken shit to pull the trigger. So for years I tried suicide on the instalment plant with drugs and booze. Then it got to a point where I realized I was probably never going to die and would just wind up this miserable junkie who lost his wife and kid and was living a shit existence and man, you know the story… I just got tired of the life I was living and at some point made a decision to try to move forward. I’d seen so many amazing, talented, intelligent people that I loved go down in flames that the romance of the idea got lost and I figured, fuck it, I’m going to give this life thing a shot. Somewhere along the line I found out that life is a blessing we need to grab hold of and try to honour as best we can.

Turning to your book Crumbling Utopian Pipedream can you briefly describe your dealings with Mike Daily of Moran Press and the process in getting your book published? 

Mike Daily actually isn’t part of Moran Press. He’s a friend I connected with a couple years back when he moved to where I live. We met and connected because we have similar taste in literature. He has a couple great novels he wrote and is the man behind the amazing “Gagaku Meat: The Steve Richmond Story.” He was also editor for a couple 80’s -90’s era zines based out of Los Angeles, so naturally I asked him to edit the book before I sent it around to publishers.

Moran Press was one of maybe six publishers I sent the manuscript to. I don’t think it was a week after I sent it before Steven Moran, the owner, contacted me saying he wanted to publish it. I was thrilled and couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Steven really believes in his authors and is determined to put out the best product possible. He is very thorough. The process was pretty straight forward. I sent the manuscript, we fine toothed it, maybe three more times, attempting to catch any mistakes that might have slipped by, I got the cover work done, and bam, we were printing maybe 5 months later. It was a great overall experience.

The amazing front cover was designed by Marie Enger, the comic book artist. Can you briefly explain her brief and how the cover contributes to your overall purpose in putting out your book?

Marie is brilliant. She popped up on my radar because she did the cover for an issue of Paper & Ink, a lit zine based out of the U.K. I love this mag and own every issue. Anyhow, I was exploring artists, and as soon as I saw her work, I knew she was the woman for the job. I’m always drawn in by cover art, whether it be on a book or album cover, if the cover is badass and I’ve never heard of the author or band, I’m more likely to take a chance on buying it. I wanted to take that idea and apply it to my book.

What are you trying to say in your title poem ‘Crumbling Utopian Pipedream’?

Basically, despite all the wreckage we as humans create while going through life, we can rise up, overcome and be reborn, should we choose.

What’s your view so far on Trump? Is he going to do anything for the little guy marooned somewhere in America’s wasteland and looking for a job?

Trump is a fucking swindling carnie who has not the slightest care for the dilutional suckers that voted him in because of his promises to restore the workforce of the “little guy.” He’s the epitome of a piece of shit boss you don’t want to work for because he’ll fuck you every chance he gets and somehow people thought he would take their best interests to heart. It’s ugly and sad but middle America really showed its ass when they voted him into office.
 
Can you tell us more about your career as a performance poet, including your involvement with the Acoustic Tongue Sessions and later projects?

There was a time where I did some slam poetry but recently I’ve been more about work that conveys better on the page than it does on the stage. They aren’t huge fans of short, concise poems at slam competitions.

But the Acoustic Tongue Sessions was a project me and my buddy Shea Westhoff put together. We had an arching story line based around a kid living on the streets. Shea and I travelled together in my days on the road and had a lot of experience to draw from. He wrote some songs, we wrote some songs together, and I wrote some poems, all of it following the storyline of this kid living on the road. Then we alternated between song and poem to convey the story. We travelled around and performed it at different places around the country. Most notably, we were performing at Alex Gray’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in New York City, but maybe three songs in, we got shut down cause a bunch of kids tripping on acid got stuck in the elevator and the cops showed up to this crazy, unpermitted scene and put the kibosh on it.

What do you hope your readers will take away with your latest book?

That no matter how hopeless things seem, there is a way out.

Have you recently stumbled upon some new authors you haven’t read before who have impressed you?

Man, there’s a ton of ‘em out there right now. I think the underground, or as my friend Mike Daily likes to call it, post-outlaw poetry, is alive and well. But a few names that are newer to me and very impressive would be Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Katie Lewington, Mather Schneider, James Decay, Paul Tristram, Jenny Santellano, Jamie Thrasivoulou, Matthew Borczon, and Benjamin Blake, to name a few.

What are you working at the moment?

I have two projects currently that I’m really excited about. The first is a collaboration with Janne Karlsson titled, “Killing Our Saints,” that we hope to release sometime this winter. And a split chap with James Decay that is being fleshed out. Hopefully he and I can find a publisher who’s not afraid to push some buttons and is willing to put their name on it.

Thanks Scott!

Thank you George, this has been a really fun interview!


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