Alan Justiss: the name brings forth a multitude of divergent opinion from as many different people as you ask, most of whom are probably right. He is a near-deity to some, a near-devil to others; an extreme man for extreme times whose personal habits and proclivities challenge the dainty drudgery of daily life. He is a major figure in the burgeoning local spoken-word scene, and could’ve been a national or international Celebrity Poet had he the stomach to shill his own work. I interviewed him behind the Czigan-Rummel gallery, downtown, during an ad hoc press junket for his reading at the Karpeles on October 6. Church bells and sirens outside. Looking into those small black pupils set into blue irises was like viewing a solar eclipse–much easier to find than people like Justiss, and more so everyday.
Alan Justiss is the product of an age of fresh post-war liberation, a time when the young and idealistic were more empowered to follow their muse, for better or worse, by the sudden realization that, with the introduction of nuclear weapons, “humanity” was a much more impermanent concept than in the days of single-shot muskets, bayonets and trench warfare. “I was born in Dayton, Ohio, 1943. At the age of four days old I moved to FL, grew up in Yukon . . . by the time I was six or seven I had read everything that Mark Twain had ever written, and from that point on I was always fascinated by stories and imagination, and the importance it could have on people’s solitude.” And what is the value of solitude? “Self-discovery. Because when you get around people, they don’t let you know anything about yourself but their own preconceived ideas.” His solitary nature is captured brilliantly in a recent painting by Mr. Jonathan Lux: coffee, cigarettes, a radio that seems to never stop and his manual typewriter.
He has four children–Christopher, Damon, Suzanne and Monet–produced during five marriages ended by his lust for that next poem. Each woman proposed to him–“if they think I’m worthwhile, I better tell them yes.” He attributes his uniform failure within the “family man” motif to his work, which long ago ceased being simply an obsession and became perhaps the raison d’etre we all need to get ourselves out of bed and into the sunlight each day. As for the ladies, well . . . maybe number six is out there, but Alan hasn’t been with a woman in 12 years, and “I Am Waiting,” he says. “I know what love is. I have a lot saved up.”
Alan did journalism for the Mayport Mirror and, later, the Jacksonville Journal in the mid-1960s. “Six weekends I spent at the Astor Hotel and the various fleabag places, talking with winos and people on social security–I had my typewriter and I was looking down on Bay street, Laura street, Forsyth street, Duval–that was where I found true life was, in these small enclaves of humanity.” He expressed no real desire to write prose anymore, unfortunately. The question of influences (a word that, in the context of journalism, comes off so blatantly fanboy I try not to use it while working) brings a flood of names spanning a glorious century of and for American literature: “From Mark Twain and O. Henry, it was Carl Sandburg, Jack London, and then Hemingway, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, the poets–Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire–and then onward through H.L. Mencken, John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Alan Justiss–a major influence on me. . . .” And why not? He knows his demographic.
Of them all, Bukowski (1920-1994; author of 50 books, my favorite being Shakespeare Never Did This) is probably his favorite, maybe because they met in 1973. The details depend on what source one goes to, but this is AJ’s story: “I had originally gone over to see his girlfriend, Linda King, and I’d just come back from San Francisco . . . Bukowski hid in the bathroom for about the first 30 minutes after I arrived. I’d come over to praise her work, and then I started talking about her boyfriend. Hank came lumbering out of the bathroom and realized that I was interested in his work also. We got thrown in the drunk tank; he wrote that he’d busted out all these panes, but what actually happened was I was razzing him. ‘Come on, old man, you didn’t duke it out with Hemingway.’
“He said ‘Yes, I did,’ and he rammed his fist through a small pane of glass in a French door. We were really fucked up, and I ran my left fist through eight panes of glass, which severed all kinds of things in my wrist [and caused a near-fatal case of gangrene]. Ah, what a fiasco it all became.” The end result is that Alan has the ironic distinction of being called a “drunken swine” by Charles Bukowski in the poems “We All Knew Him” and “With the Other Woman,” from 1981’s Dancing in the Tournefortia.
A unifying trait in the writing he loves is insistence, a confidence born of repetition. Young writers are invariably frustrated, and his advice to them hinges on the idea of detaching from one’s personal stake in their work. “Don’t try to write–write. Don’t be self-critical of yourself because you haven’t reached some perfection. Give yourself credit for the fact that you are vulnerable and that you do things in creation that perhaps have no value, but it is a constant rehearsal for the time that you’ll be able to dance across the page and people will be able to feel the wind in the words. So, discipline . . . discipline . . . discipline.”
The work available from Alan Justiss is hardly commensurate with what he’s done. Most of his work prior to 1990 is unavailable at present. He was in the Peeling Potatoes anthology, also Solidarity; he’s published chapbooks like Freedom At its Worst Angle bootlegs from readings and radio exist; but the thick volume I think is needed to really get a real sense of his art–which should include older stuff and analyses by colleagues like Nestor Gil, Jr. and Robert Eskew–remains uncompiled. That will change at some point, surely. He recorded You’ll Laugh in the Coming Years with Jay Cole and G. Jerome Jones in 2001, performed at the New School last year. (These and other items can be had in some form via Mr. Justiss.)
“I spent most of my life, from the age of seven, running away from home, and when I was finally able to con my way into the military at the age of 16, my parents gladly signed the papers for me to go in. I have since spent most of my life outside of Jacksonville, because there was always such a cultural devastation constantly occurring. Anytime something raised its head, it was put back down into the swamp. But when I turned 50, after my fifth divorce, I came to a conclusion: I knew that I was a writer, but I also came to a conclusion: this is my home town, and this is where I feel I should die. And that’s why I haven’t left this place in ten years. That’s the bottom line. This is where I’m going to die. This is where I will die . . . maybe. [laughs] Hell, I don’t know about that. I ain’t no prophet.” But by voicing it, he makes it so . . . maybe.
There is a saying: “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” and it’s a saying embodied–and emboldened–by the life of Alan Justiss. Justiss lives like a man who knows that compromise, like so much of what passes for “normal” in this abnormal world, is a scam, a short ticket to slow death that much be avoided whenever possible. A lesson worth learning, I think. The ride he’s taken has been interesting, if not always fun. The road he leaves behind him is cracked, mottled, laced with intermittent fires and congested with debris, screaming women, men stumbling through the smoke in dazed delirium, like the Autobahn if they never cleared the wreckage. Of course, his road is great fun to look at from the sky, if you can deal with it. Speed kills, indeed–but everything kills, eventually.
firstname.lastname@example.org; September 21, 2001
[Note: Alan Justiss died February 14, 2011]