Every time I write about Outlaw Poetry I discover that I am defining it all over again. All I can do is begin once again all over with myself. I’m an Outlaw Poet. I was an Outlaw Poet even before I could write a decent poem. I’m still an Outlaw Poet. But, maybe I’d better explain. I was practically raised on the streets. I was a street thief and a damned good one, too; it was a matter of survival. And, I lived in a run down skid row hotel for nearly twelve years before I was able to escape with a college education. Even after that I never really became middle class. You can’t automatically become a non outlaw after you’ve spent eleven or twelve years of your childhood with shoplifters, hookers, alkies, drifters, and sociopaths. It just doesn’t happen.
And, it just doesn’t translate into nice people poetry. The poems I read in high school and later at the university didn’t have any switchblades in it. Didn’t have any automatics in it. Didn’t have any gangsters in it. Didn’t have any winos or cue sticks or blackjacks in it. I remember when I finally got interested in poetry, it sort of felt like I was running on one leg. I was looking for poets who looked and sounded like Bogart and what I ended up with was guys like T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. I did like Hart Crane because he was a wild man. But there weren’t many like him.
And, later after I graduated from the university I kept looking for poets who could write about the life I knew as a kid. Bukowski came close but he didn’t write about the stuff that I knew. He wasn’t a kid when he was living on skidrow. He wasn’t a street thief. What I finally realized was that I could never be a Robert Lowell or a John Berryman though I admired their achievements. I could never be a T. S. Eliot or an Ezra Pound. I was born too late but I also admired their achievements.
And, I could never sell out by getting an MFA degree. I knew even back in 1970 that a writing degree was the ticket into the academic world and was pretty much what you did to get the fancy awards and prizes and I didn’t want any part of it even then because the whole process had a corpse smell to it. I could’ve called myself an outlaw then but I hadn’t earned it. I personally believe you have to earn the word Outlaw the way that gangsters become made men. You have to do something above and beyond just writing a few skinny chapbooks. Though Rimbaud earned it by producing not much more than that. And, in this mix you can include d.a. levy, Ray Bremser, and Jack Micheline.
In 1973 I became an Outlaw Poet when I first started to write about John Dillinger. I became an Outlaw Poet in spite of the fact that it would be three more years before I would write a Dillinger poem that essentially became an archetypal depth charge on the poetry scene. The movement now known as Outlaw Poetry began in 1976 with The Name Is Dillinger. Before that time there were maverick poets writing at the margins of the small press scene. Micheline was known as a Beat poet but he was more outlaw than Beat. By 1976 levy was dead and Kell Robertson was writing his own brand of outlaw poetry in here in New Mexico.
The fact that no one was calling this Outlaw Poetry at the time does not diminish the fact that this kind of work was coming out of an Outlaw life style and an Outlaw way of seeing things. But, the fact remains, and this is fact is irrefutable. When I wrote The Name Is Dillinger in 1976, Outlaw got started even though I didn’t refer to that kind of writing that way. Then. The whole thing got its conscious start in the eighties. Midwestern Writers Publishing House brought out The Name Is Dillinger in 1980 and I began to write to Tony Moffeit in 1983. In fact, my small press Roadhouse brought out his chapbook Outlaw Blues that same year and that was also when we began calling ourselves outlaws.
In the eighties I also discovered pulp writing. The best of Black Mask Magazine. Writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson. This is because I was looking around for a raw way of saying things in poems. I was looking for raw where nobody had thought of looking before. I was tired of the aesthetic distance. I wanted a poem to be up close and personal. I wanted the gloves off. I wanted a poem to draw blood. I wanted a poem to be as lethal as a 45 auto. And, I still do. Nothing works as dangerously as a declarative sentence stripped to its bones. There was a time when I referred to my poetry as Noir. I still think of it that way. But, overall what I wrote then and what I write now is Outlaw through and through.
The next watershed year in Outlaw Poetry occurred when Floating Island Publications brought out Tony Moffeit’s book of poems and essays entitled POETRY IS DANGEROUS, THE POET IS AN OUTLAW. This marked Moffeit’s first comprehensive attempt to define what had been, until then, really a kind of dialogue that he and I had been having for a little more than ten years. This was maybe the first time if ever that anyone had ever suggested in prose that poetry was dangerous. We all knew poetry had been dangerous in the Soviet Union. And, poetry had been dangerous in South America. That poetry is dangerous wherever there is a dictatorship. But no one in america had ever really taken seriously the idea that poetry is, by its outlaw and primal nature, dangerous. With the exceptions of Ted Hughes’ essays and Lorca’s Play And Theory Of The Duende, nobody thought it necessary to point out the wild energies hidden in the dark lines of a poem. At least, nobody here.Then in 1999, Thunders Mouth brought out maybe the most important poetry anthology ever. THE OUTLAW BIBLE OF AMERICAN POETRY has pretty much broken the record for poetry anthology sales. And, it has also solidly put the words Outlaw Poetry out there. Argue as you might that key outlaw poets were left out. Bukowski for one. Bukowski was a one man show. He was unrepeatable. Tony Moffeit and Kell Robertson and Mark Weber were also left out of this landmark collection. But, what OUTLAW BIBLE did was blow an enormous hole in the american psyche regarding Outlaw Poetry. Because of that anthology no one will ever think of Outlaw Poetry the same way again.
When Tony Moffeit and I finally decided to found the back in 2004, it wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. We’d had more than twenty years to talk about Outlaw Poetry. We had both written key books both about and of Outlaw Poetry. So, this wasn’t something new. This was not a fluke.
However, if none of that matters, if none of that is relevant as to what Outlaw Poetry is or should be or could never be, then lets bring it all down to this. As an Outlaw Poet, I’m putting it all on the line. All of it. Every chapbook, every poem, every essay. It’s all out there the way Doc Holliday might shove his chips to the center of the table on the strength of the cards he is holding. I’m holding DILLINGER. Bukowski is holding Chinaski. He has a helluva hand. And, Cormac McCarthy is in the game even though he’s strictly a novelist and doesn’t give a shit about other writers. Which is maybe the way it should be though I never played it that way. He’s holding BLOOD MERIDIAN. The literary gods love him. The movies love him. The smart money is on him for the Nobel Prize.