"Captain Poetry's Sucker Punch"
Dare to know.
Commit with others to face-time education and ecstasy through production of a community newspaper in the city that would know itself better than any other and thereby enter into The Guinness Book of World Records.
So opens the final selection in former Lakewood Public library director Ken Warren’s new book, “Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch”: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012. The piece is called: “The Lakewood Observer’s Hyper-local Dojo: Self-Defense and the Ecology of Civic Engagement.”
As much as I like and respect current Lakewood library director Jim Crawford, I have big regrets that my children will not come of age as Lakewood library-goers and citizens under the tutelage of Ken Warren.
The above quotes are in the Praxis section of a set of guidelines for the creation and protection of-- you guessed it--the paper you’re holding in your hands, or looking at on your screen—The Lakewood Observer--which turns out to be a kind of living epic poem that you are a part of because you’re reading this now, and I am a part of because I’m writing this now, thinking of you. The other. “Ecstasy” has many definitions. Coming together to create this paper is one of them. “A feeling of great happiness…involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” (from the Dashboard dictionary on my laptop.) Transcending the experience of having your own life in Lakewood, with your family and friends, to share with others through the articles and letters and columns you write, and the pictures you take and publish for the others :the Lakewoodites you do not know, but who you share everything with, especially the air we breathe, the streets we live and travel on, the schools, the parks, the garbage pick-up. Through the container of the Lakewood Observer, we share, we support, we examine, we criticize, we celebrate. “Face-time education and ecstasy through the production of a community newspaper…”
And it’s all under the heading or should I say contained in, the phrase: “Dare to know.” Is Mr. Warren kidding when he implies that the goal of all of this enlightenment is entering into the Guinness Book of World Records as the city that knows itself better than any other? How would one measure that? How do you think we’re doing? Should we be in the book?
If the people at Guinness are concerned with world records, the Lakewood Observer has set and broken its own record as the longest-running community journalism project in the country.
But do we know ourselves? That was the goal. Are we healthy?
In a recent radio interview with Robert Phoenix, Ken describes how the Lakewood Observer was born out of a need for the community to be able to talk to itself, or “amongst ourselves” rather than having to rely upon “news” leaving the city through official news releases and then being handed back via the Plain Dealer, Sun papers, or other media who each had their own spin on what they thought we should think about what was going on in our own front and back yards.
Phoenix enthusiastically shared with Ken a reflection from alternative health physician and activist, Joseph Mercola. Mercola, Phoenix said, has found “that people who lie have really poor health. There’s a somatic connection between lying and illness. On a collective level,” Phoenix said, “we’re seeing this accumulation of lies and denial and illusion taking place, and as a result, there’s a sickness of the collective body.”
“Yeah,” Ken responds. “we’re living in a pathological fantasy. This (collective fantasy) is ripping out anything we’ve held in common as human beings.”
Ken’s mission with his book, with his part in the creation of the Lakewood Observer is to attempt to do his part to restore what we’ve held in common.
“What interests me is understanding the Jungian notion that soul is other… You look for the mythology of an other that claims you. You have to look for your wound in the wounds of others. The wound becomes a womb. You’re looking for a kind of rebirth and healing.”
He went on to describe the work of Jack Clark, in “Curriculum of the Soul.” As Clark sees it, there is a time factor to truth, to news, to information, to creation. “Everybody has a hunch or an intuitive spark. That’s not enough. Not enough just to nab it. You’ve got to put it into a deeper relational, time factored context. You have to look for the other.” The other is part of the creation, part of the news, part of the information, part of the truth.
The healing comes with speaking, in one’s own voice, without filters, one’s own truth, making the expression, “Says you,” into something holy. Says me, indeed. This is me, this is what I think. What do you think?
The people at Guinness may not know how to measure how well a community knows itself, but in terms of world records, the Lakewood Observer has set and broken its own record as the longest-running community journalism project in the country.
It is fitting that the postscript of this book consists of directions for the coming together of voices in the real world. The main body of the book is a bringing together of more voices: poets, essayists, musicians, homeless people dancing at bus stations in Lakewood, survivors of Kent State, survivors of the Phantasy Night club.
And what they all have in common is the need to speak. And that they have spoken, and Ken has heard, and kept and collected their voices, bringing to his readers a fantastic assortment of voices and points of view, with Ken as your very intuitive guide.
There is a lot of subject matter here that will be familiar to Lakewoodites and citizens of Greater Cleveland. Ken’s powers of observation are poetic and far-ranging, at the same time, his familiarity with his subject is striking as is his ability to bring his reader directly to the scene of the crime.
My first experience with “Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch” occurred when Ken came to town carrying the proof copy in his hand. I innocently asked him “what was in the book.” Ken, knowing of my interest in rock music and musicians, asked me what I thought of Johnny Thunders, from the New York Dolls. “I like him,” I said. “What’s not to like?” Turns out I was referring to the iconic Johnny Thunders from back in the day, not the one who played the Phantasy in 1986 the night Ken was there, reviewing the show for the Alternative Press.
In a piece early on in “Captain Poetry,” called, “Why Johnny Can’t Play,” Ken begins by describing the scene that gave birth to the New York Dolls I thought I was remembering:
“In the dark the deepest urge of all garage bands was to transcend on guitar the lot of the grease monkey, in other words, the world of hard mechanical work on cars. That urge was given particular expression in the bitchy, glittering sneers of the New York Dolls. The sister morphine androgyny hatched in garages across the boroughs of New York shot into the American mainland the violation aesthetics that bound together for life metal and punk.”
But by the time Johnny got to Cleveland—Lakewood—in fact, as a solo act, in 1986, Cleveland was ready for him, but he was not ready for Cleveland:
“On February 22, 1986, Cleveland performed a postmortem on ex New York Doll Johnny Thunders, who had recently picked up a guitarist in Toronto and rattled into town to testify “No More Junkie Business.” At several levels we saw Thunders back from the dead, fortunes rising, felt Beatle boots, pink sash about black brim, prancing about the Phantasy, half crocked and full of shit.
After a long absence, sedated bodies of yore returned to club life, paid double for the death trip, and couldn’t move a muscle to Thunders’ sagging covers of “Walk Don’t Run,” “Gloria,” “Eve of Destruction,” and “Play with Fire.” In essence, the pile of dead Cleveland meat that packed into the Phantasy for Johnny Thunders had found itself treated badly to little more than “Green Onions” bloated with depressants.
And then Ken goes on to describe Cleveland. What makes it hard here, and what makes it good. At least in 1986:
“The problem of difference, of regional distinction, could not alone explain the bad vibe that had turned a West Side Eighties music club into the last refuge of debased glitter rituals that had come to converge on the site of Thunders’ dying presence… Cleveland is, of course, a decaying crossroads from which many souls ship off for parts unknown. Those who stick around can either drown in booze or burrow in the family. What makes Cleveland a great place for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that nobody congratulates survivors as they do in New York City. In Cleveland everybody looks at the stage as an opportunity to work hard. At the Phantasy, Thunders didn’t produce and therefore didn’t get the clap he wanted.
Ultimately, Mr. Warren has sympathy for Mr. Thunders:
“Still, the con man in us all has got to admire Thunders for his comeback scam. The world’s heard Thunders could not self-manage a piss for a score of years. But the extent of his success in Cleveland hangs after the show on the shine he put on his cast brass balls by blaming the victims in the audience for why Johnny can’t play.
‘I really wanted to do another set but the audience was dead,’ contended Thunders.
And finally, Johnny is allowed to fire a last insult at the Cleveland audience which has long ago left the building: “I had more fun playing in Russia than I had playing in Cleveland tonight.”
Ken takes on the life and work of late Cleveland poet Daniel Thompson, the Poet Laureate of Cuyahoga County, escorting readers on an odyssey of his work that brings the essence of the poet to life before you, revealing “what’s so big” about “The Big Book of Daniel,” describing the “big Jesus reflex ripples from Thompson’s ‘mustardseed faith.’” In “Tears of Jesus,” Ken describes Thompson “coaxing an ironic note from the divine child imagined weeping at Christmastime..”
After the mayoral
Sweep of the homeless
From the streets into jail
The mayor then ordered
The tears to be swept away, too
The tears of Jesus are bad for business
During the Christmas rush
I mean, come on, said the mayor to Jesus
Don’t be such a baby
Ken delves into Thompson’s history as a Freedom Rider from Kent State who ends up imprisoned in North Carolina asking the The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for a gun, which he is denied.
Ken describes the resulting poem: “For Thompson, the denial of a gun carried the historical weight of a founding conflict, one he transformed over time into a poem packing heat”:
No less than Thomas Jefferson said
We are all gunmen
Cross at the light
And step over the dead
We are all gunmen
For those who are unfamiliar with Daniel Thompson, there is no better place to start, than accompanied by “Captain Poetry.”
The words Ken uses to describe the triumph of poet and experimental novelist, Gil Sorrentino, has achieved with in his novel, “Crystal Vision,” can easily be applied to Ken’s own work and approach in “Captain Poetry”: “If talk promises to be a transcendent act, then hearing is his first responsibility as a man.”
Ken has taken his responsibility very seriously. There is no more room here to describe the rewards of reading “Captain Poetry,” except to say its essays are astonishing for both their complexity and their compassion.