an interview with john macker

An Interview with John Macker

macker profileJohn Macker lives in Santa Fe, NM. His latest books are Atlas of Wolves, (Stubborn Mule Press 2019), The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away Selected Poems 1983-2018 (Stubborn Mule Press), Gorge Songs (DCArt Press, 2017) with Denver woodblock artist Leon Loughridge and Blood in the Mix, (with El Paso poet Lawrence Welsh), Lummox Press, 2015. Other books include Disassembled Badlands, Woman of the Disturbed Earth, Underground Sky, Adventures in the Gun Trade among others. In 2006 he edited the Desert Shovel Review.

By g emil reutter

GER: What are your roots in poetry and how were you able to evolve to your own unique voice?

JM: I started writing poetry seriously and consistently after college in Denver. Dylan Thomas was a huge early influence and then, later on, Kerouac and the Beats and their vital connection to Denver. Fresh out of the Univ. of Missouri, in 1978, I took Gregory Corso’s “Socratic: Poetry Rap” at Naropa Institute in Boulder that summer. I was influenced by the Donald Allen-edited anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, as seminal a representation of contemporary poetry as there was at the time. I began to scour bookstores for Diane DiPrima, Corso, David Meltzer, Ed Dorn, Lew Welch, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Ginsberg and the rest. In Denver, I was introduced to poet/artist Tony Scibella who owned Black Ace Books on East Colfax. He had been influenced by his friendship with Perkoff, who died in 1973. (An early, enthusiastic supporter of Perkoff’s was Charles Olson.) Our friendship lasted until Tony’s death in L.A. in 2003. My first publication, a broadside, was published by Larry Lake’s Bowery Press in 1983.

So, my roots involved that generation of artists and wordslingers who came of age in the 1950’s and 1960’s, who wrote with a radical new spontaneity and vision that was based in large part, on the way people talked to each other on the streets, responses to cultural suffocation, the atom bomb, drugs, Vietnam and sex. Also, the little small press literary mags and their attendant scenes that began springing up all over America, edited by Judson Crews, Diane DiPrima, Amiri Baraka, William Margolis, Wallace Berman, and many others, had their origin stories in that generation. 

My own voice found its origins in the texts of these poets but also through a carefree diet of indiscriminate and voracious reading throughout the years. Prose writers such as Kerouac, Roberto Bolańo, Charles Bowden and Cormac McCarthy come to mind. My true voice came, with the most potency, from the landscapes and natural beauty I found in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. I grew up in the west, my grandfather was a cowboy and a rancher, so I absorbed the landforms early on. I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship of humans to their environments. It sounds like a well-worn theme but it also involves ritual, magic, Native American history, the desert and the Blues. The works of Gary Snyder, Ed Dorn, John Knoll, Linda Hogan, N. Scott Momaday, Amiri Baraka, the transcendent essays of John Nizalowski and many others.

macker desert

GER: How did your move from Colorado to New Mexico enhance or affect your art?

JM: It was significant, life changing. The visual stimulation and history came at me full throttle. The Apaches, Billy the Kid, the canyons, mesas and pueblos. The graves, the hidden underneath. It was mind-altering. A drug with wings. It allowed me to build my writing with new focus, energy and subject matter. They came in through the window. I guess you could say I reached a level of maturity and discipline that was needed to get the work done.

GER: Share with us how your collaborative work with Paris Butler, Leon Loughridge and Lawrence Welsh came about and how was the experience?

JM: Parris and I collaborated on the one broadside back in Denver in ’86, I think. Again, the writers of that generation were keen on collaboration because it not only enhanced the words but visual art, on many levels, was integral to their lives. They were all friends! The influence was always mutual and contagious. Leon and I met through the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe where I was working and he was represented. He is a superb wood block artist in the light and tradition of Gustave Baumann. We’re working on our 4th limited edition book together. Sometimes I would work off of his images and sometimes we would just meet having done the work separately but guided by a central image or theme. Sometimes he’s worked off of my words. It’s a mutual inspiration society. Mostly geographical and historically themed.  He’s also an amazing book maker. His technique is flawless. I’ve also collaborated with my wife Annie, Tony Scibella, Denver artist Steve Wilson, Santa Fe artist Carol Anthony, and artist John Felsing.  

I’d been an admirer of El Paso poet Lawrence Welsh’s work for years. He approached me in 2015 about doing a book together and I had some new work so we made it happen. It was published by Lummox Press. Blood in the Mix was Larry’s title. I’m a bit more long-winded than he is so the contrast, I think, was illuminating. Some of his potent shorter poems work like Southwestern charms or spells. He’s also a firm believer in collaboration. His latest book is Cutting the Wire, with photographer Bruce Berman and poet Ray Gonzalez.

GER: In 1988 you opened a used and rare book store in Glenwood Springs. How did that experience add to your poetry as well as the constant interaction with poets?

JM: Denver was only three hours away from Glenwood Springs, a mountain community, so the connection with writing and old friends was always there. A bookstore should always be a community conduit. That’s why so many small independent booksellers have survived things like economic downturns and pandemics. Yeah, a lot of different folks dropped by throughout the years. Influenced by the small press publishers, I published the Harp Arts Journal, which had feelers up and down the valley. Hunter Thompson was a fan. I dug the action, I didn’t have a boss and I didn’t make a dime. But for seven years, I was in book heaven. Got to know Colorado poets like the late, great Mike Adams, Art Goodtimes, and Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer.

GER: For two decades you have been bookstore director at Gerald Peters Gallery. Even though you continue to promote the arts how does this gig differ from Glenwood Springs?

JM: Due to covid, I’ve been furloughed for the last 12 months so I’m not real sure about the future. But, I had a hands-off boss! I had a paycheck! I didn’t have to worry about keeping the lights on. I met some of the most interesting people in the world there and Gerald Peters, as one of the perks for working there, let me use the gallery space off-hours for poetry readings, publication parties and so forth. Great fun. And the art on the walls was always an inspiration. I was able to attract some local (& national) writers of supreme talent for my one and only edition of the Desert Shovel Review. I also had free reign to stock the shelves with some of the greatest art and photography titles (new and out-of-print) ever published.

GER: You have been involved in a number of publications over the years. Describe the interaction with other writers and what do you consider to be your best publication?

JM: My first editing/publishing shot was the lit mag Moravagine, in 1983, in Denver. Very raw and by today’s standards, primitive. I still wince when I look at it. I did 3 issues. My third issue featured an interview with Venice West/Denver poet Tony Scibella which was later used by John Arthur Maynard in his book on the SoCal Beat era, Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California. But it was a learning experience. And that’s what you did, you got to practice your craft while assembling what you believe to be the finest art and writing that you can scrounge up, to surround you on the page. It was influenced by Larry Lake’s Mano/Mano 2 (with Kenneth Patchen, Neal Cassady letters, Ken Kesey, Russell Edson, Stuart Perkoff, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac etc. ) and Ed Ward’s Passion Press, both in Denver. Ed Ward’s interview in one of his issues with underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who was a Colorado resident, was essential reading. Brakhage extolled the virtues of the small press and was close to poetry. I had him show a couple of his films at this Denver Art Museum gig I did in the 80’s.

     Later, in Glenwood, I edited a few years’ worth of monthly Harp Arts Journals (in tabloid form) before ending up with a couple of magazine format issues. There, I was fortunate enough to have access to material by Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, John Hiatt interview, Ben Talbert etc).

     I edited the Desert Shovel Review in New Mexico, in 2006. I was able to connect with some fine American writers including Jack Hirschman, S.A. Griffin, Mike Adams, Donald Levering, David Meltzer, John Knoll, Janet Glovinsky, Philomene Long, John Thomas, Todd Moore, Tony Moffeit, collage by Steve Wilson. It was, for lack of a better word, a kind of outlaw presentation: perfect bound, jaw dropping collage by my wife, published out of our roadhouse. It was during the second Bush administration and I quoted Hans Arp: “While the thunder of the batteries rumbled/In the distance, we pasted, we recited, we/Versified, we sang with all our soul.”  I still feel that way.  I was in all 9 issues of RD Armstrong’s Lummox journals with either poems or essays.

     One of the best I was involved in, no doubt, was Gary Brower’s Malpais Review that appeared between 2010-2016. He published my poetry but mostly essays on poets, like Ed Dorn and his Recollections of Gran Apacheria and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I ended up there as contributing editor. It was published out of Placitas, New Mexico. A poetry anthology for the ages.

     Padma Thornlyre, publisher of Turkey Buzzard Press, published three of my poetry titles. He’s a good editor and friend. I’ve also established a good working relationship with Jason Ryberg of Spartan/Stubborn Mule Press, who published my last two titles. I’ve worked closely with both of them on the look and scope of the books.

     Another type of collaboration between consenting adults.

OutlawFlyer-Boulder

GER: How did you become involved with “The Outlaw Poet’s Summit Reading” and how did that go?

JM: RD Armstrong asked us to meet him in Boulder so we did. It was great to see old friends, Art Goodtimes and Mike Adams, who was ailing but in fine form and voice.

macker moore

GER: Can you share with us your memoires of Todd Moore?

JM: Todd was a gentle man with a huge spirit and generosity. His kind of scholarly appearance and soft voice belied the ferocity of his language. He was a school teacher but also the quintessential outlaw poet, along with Pueblo, Colorado’s Tony Moffeit. One night, a whole group of folks came out to the roadhouse for the Desert Shovel publication party. Todd and Tony were huddled in the corner & I overheard Todd tell him that he was “in the process of destroying the American line.” I believed him. Some of his lines were one word in length. He probably knew more about John Dillinger than Melvin Purvis did. He was an early supporter of my manuscript for Adventures in the Gun Trade. He had a collection of historic knives that was scary and they had a privileged spot in his study close to his wall of books. He was extremely well read. On his 70th birthday he dropped into the gallery. He still had a twinkle in his eye. I think he enjoyed busting the chops of the “literary establishment” as much as anyone. He reiterated his love for gangsters and old Westerns. I could go on. Todd shouldn’t be forgotten.

macker cutting

GER: Your 1984 chapbook, the cutting distance, was released by Long Road Press.  Can you tell us about the chapbook?

JM: It was my first. And I think a kind of green, careless work. I needed an editor like a drought needs water. I needed more seasoning, for sure. My mother had just passed away suddenly so I was riding on those emotions & it was dedicated to her. Tony Scibella illustrated it and Frank Rios wrote a foreword. We assembled it in Tony’s bookstore. But Larry Lake, who published my first broadside believed in it so we went ahead. The poems were like early auditions for the Muse. Some poems still stand. One in particular: in the park/my dog/like a silly yellow snowcloud/lopes across the grass/in the dark/with the crooked smile/of dead things in his mouth.

GER: Tell us about Border Wall Blues from Atlas of Wolves and its continued relevance to events of the day?

JM: I’m glad you asked. That poem is an exclamation of terror and urgency. It sprung out of previous administrations’ obsession over walls. It’s also satirical. The previous administration turned the border into a hellscape, a boneyard, a place where families were separated and decayed. It’s about our “rapacious crumbling beauty”, our obsession with tired, racist monuments and statuary. It destroys the migratory paths of wildlife. It’s a billion dollar disgrace and illustrates what happens when a government lacks all imagination and empathy. Recited aloud, the poem is a chant and ends up singing us the blues.

j macker 1

GER: You have been performing readings for a few decades. What do you get from readings and how important are they to your continuing development as a poet?

JM: Two things: They are key to listening to the poem aloud in your own voice and gauging the reaction of an audience. If the poem is not finished (& I’m not sure any of mine really are) readings help to edit the poem. Secondly, I’ve spent years trying to become a better reader or performer of my work and I think I’ve managed to communicate my words with much more clarity, enthusiasm and professionalism than I did, say, 20 years ago. My first major public reading was at the Slightly Off-Center Theatre in Denver in the early 80’s. I read with Ed Dorn and Linda Hogan. It was the first time I really listened to poetry spoken to me.  

I’ve done some Zoom readings and those have been useful but it’s nothing like live talking flesh.

GER: Has Covid had an effect on you and your family and where do you see us in another year?

JM: My wife’s art business (she sells at an artist’s market at the railyard in Santa Fe) has come to a halt. I haven’t worked at the gallery in a year. We are unable to see our grandchildren, one who has special needs. Like everyone else, we’ve mostly adjusted. I sit under a tree in the backyard (weather permitting) and compose, if the gods are paying attention. We walk the dogs 2 miles every morning. Trying to reach some semblance of order and common purpose with the rest of humanity going through what we are. But, yeah, the isolation gets to us. Phone calls and emails just don’t cut it. With the vaccines moving down the line and if everyone masks up and social distances for a while longer, I think we can be in a good place for 2022, but we can’t take our eyes off of the task at hand. There’s been a fanatic belligerence towards public policy of late and everything got politicized, so that set us back in real time. The game is simple: we need to keep ourselves and others safe.

GER: What projects are you working on?

JM: In 2020 DCArt Press put out a short prose memoir of mine, “El Rialto”, with serigraphs by Leon Loughridge. I also put out a book of short fiction, essays and a one-act play, Desert Threnody, published by auxarczen press in Missouri. It was helpful to stay busy. Am working on a couple of manuscripts, one (surprise!) having to do with the pandemic, Oblivion Decorum. I’m collaborating with Leon on a series of 4 short fiction pieces, Chaco Sojourn, with his woodblock prints for the coming year. Thanks for asking.

Macker on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+macker

atlas

Atlas of Wolves: https://www.amazon.com/Atlas-Wolves-John-Macker/dp/1950380157

g emil reutter can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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