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Monday, September 20, 2004

The Contender: Allen Johnson's Another You 

“I wear the same thing every day. It helps me think. I get dressed. Look down. Alright, where were we?”

Again not having read the program, I was ready to un-like Allen Johnson for his gratuitous ass-flashing sitting on a toilet at the beginning of his piece for NWNW.

The important thing about this piece is that it was a great interweaving of confessional monologue and poem (with butter transitions between the two) made by a guy who – as spawn of equal parts Henry Miller, Spalding Grey, Woody Allen, and Charles Bukowski who has something of Mike Watt about him– seems to have done time at the open mics of Spoken Word (and I’m talking about that early 90s San Francisco post-Beat, pre-Slam, heavily Bukowski-influenced thing), and managed to drag a fine work like this out of it. The tough-guy intensity, irreverance, and transgression, (the laundry list of beer and bourbon, nipples, 17-year-old sex with a vacuum cleaner, violence, the bitterness, the yelling segment, &c. of the poet who’s trying hard not to be called a sissy) worked only because it was balanced by sections showcasing the eye and ear of a Poet with stiletto perception, moments of something approaching the profound in quoting a girlfriend quoting gnostic texts, a beautiful bit describing spinning bicycle tires gripping and leaving the pavement, sounding here and goodbye, here and goodbye (without, thank G. any overt Buddhist reference), plus he described God as a, “set of parentheses around what we don’t understand,” “the precise articulation of a question,” and mentioned Rothko in a fabulously chewy list poem.

After marching through what he wants in a woman, and through the look at self, Johnson gets to searching for God, “in a hardwood floor, reading the grain,” for clues. After all this talking, he states the goal of being able to, “listen with the right amount of attention and distraction…” he might reach a state of, “divine autism.” That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

And as casual as his delivery was throughout most of the piece, it belied a thoughtful and integrated structure. There was a distinct and powerful thread of water running through the piece: the “hit me and roll away” of the waves that had moments before been blows, the condensation beading on the three cold beers in the hands of the woman who was dumping him, his graphic in-the-shower butt thing, describing how drink, “warms up the mental bathwater,” water sounds, puddles of beer, the toilet bowl. Johnson deftly used repetition, echo, angular sound associations suggesting next word. The guy's got an ear for Pulse, for Flow.

The conceit of the piece is that it supposedly, “grew from a desire to be openly, publicly fallible in the pursuit of personal integrity.” In other hands, say a 16-year-old poet reading from her journal or a numbskull faux-poet in a bar reading poems to try to get laid, that desire might end up as a public therapy session for him and torture for me. I don’t know how much of his misogynist, boiler mechanic, drunk, tough guy, take-me-or-leave-me persona may have been a contrivance, (he also studied with Creeley, went to Rutgers, is/was a painter). I stopped caring because Johson's a goddamn good poet and on stage, Johnson is Business. He owns the stage and from go he has you. That's what makes him a Contender.

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