By Vittorio Carli
Thax Douglas, one of the most iconic and recognizable poetry figures in Chicago, recently left Chicago because he believed he can make a better living elsewhere. For years he hosted a poetry show at Myopic Books, and he won the Nuyrican Café Slam. His fame has transcended the poetry scene, and he has become a regular fixture at rock concerts. He introduced countless performers at rock concerts with poems, until it became a measure of success for a band to have a poem written about them by Thax. He wrote more than 1,400 rock poems and carved out a unique niche for himself. Many of these poems are on his myspace page. He recently did a series of triumphant farewell readings at the Hideout, the Subterranean Lillie’s, and Mercury Café. His moving (along with Lisa Hemminger’s) was a huge loss for Chicago, but it will be a gain for New York.
His new musical project, Chicken and the Chick Flicks recently performed an all ages show at the Beat Kitchen. It’s Thax singing and Matt Mehlan and the King of All Cities playing a quarter tone keyboard and a normally tuned guitar.
Vito-How did you get started writing poetry?
Thax-Well in the '70s, I did a bunch of scribbling. I didn't read much literature but I just did it naturally. I don't think it was very good, but it had certain freshness to it. I wrote a lot of it. Its all gone. In 79 I read a short story by Flannery O'Connor called "Revelation," and it really was a revelation. That's what turned me on to literature. I started reading after that. I had known I had a proclivity for poetry, but now I decided to do something about it. In the '80s I took courses at UIC because that's writers were supposed to do. I had varying degrees of success with them. I eventually decided that it wasn't helping me, but that took a few years. Reading books was more helpful. For a poet, reading books is like training is for an athlete.
Vito-I think there are more people now that write than read.
Thax-You're right and that's unfortunate. But reading's that's the only way to learn how to do it. Rappers don’t have to pick it up by going to UIC, they hear it all on the street, and I think reading has the same function.
Vito-Can you tell me about your late, lamented show at Myopic Books?
Thax-I was the first person to have a poetry show there. It was the idea of the owner, Joe Judd. For awhile it was great, but the last few years it dragged out and hardly anyone came. You were there a couple of times. It only got lame the last two years.
Vito-Yes I was a feature three times. I saw some some great readers there.
Thax-it was great fun and by that time I had stopped going to other people's open mics?
I thought there was a real drop in the overall quality of performers. When you go to a rock show the quality level is often high, but at many open mics I might like see one out of six poets I like. I did like the poetry at your show the other night. Much of the slam influenced poetry is dreadful. Patricia Smith was good, but everyone that imitated her is terrible. I went to an open mic in December, and Maria McCray was the only one that did it for me. Everything else wrote in clichés. There was a woman pretending to be French, a goofy post modern guy, and a Black Nationalist guy. The poetry reflected the personas, and I didn't care.
Vito-Is there any precedent for people reading poetry to introduce rock bands?
Thax-I've heard that it's a convention for poets in Iceland to read before rock shows. I think Bjork's old band, the Sugarcubes had poetry in their shows.
Vito-How did you get started performing at rock shows?
Thax-Well, I had always been a music lover. I had started doing variety shows around '89. They were kind of similar to Millie’s Orchid Show which was popular here for awhile. There was poetry, performance art and then a band. I almost read a poem in '94 for the Scissor Girls but I chickened out I ended up doing the first one in '97 as a novelty. It was for Amber Bug, a band in Oak Park. I enjoyed it and kept doing more. In 2001, I was up to doing 20 poems for bands a month. I was a little surprised no one else has done it, but it's not like I am doing poems unrelated to the band. I am writing poems specifically for them.
Vito-Some of your work is so concise, yet you get to the essence of things. Some of your poems have a Haiku-like quality. Have you read much haiku, and is your poetry inspired by Asian literature?
Thax-Not directly, but I'm a great admirer of Yukio Mishima. In fact, he might be my favorite 20th century writer. Even the Japanese think he's weird because of his many contradictions, and his use of medieval language. The Japanese masters’ haikus had less impact on me than one of Richard Wright's last book which was all haikus. It was titled HAIKU: This Other World. He wrote them all while he was dying of cancer in France, and the book came out later in 1998.
Vito- Many people think that the first poets in Greece performed poems with the accompaniment of lyres (stringed instruments). How do you feel about performance art or blending different forms with poetry?
Thax-Poems are different than lyrics. If there's music behind them then they are something else. But The Odyssey was so great that we can appreciate it in that form. But it's so good that we can enjoy it how it is. Even if we had a version of the 1939 Wizard of Oz, with the sound missing, it would still stand by itself. Ideally in a poem, all the excitement that you get from visuals should be in the poem itself.
Vito-Besides Homer what other poets do you admire?
Thax-I am very into Russian poetry like the stuff found in Silver and Steel which was edited by Yvegeny Yevtushenko. All the great Russian poets are in this book it's like my Bible. Arkadii Dragomoshenko’s stuff is nuts. There was a thing called acmeism that is about 100 year old. It's not surrealism but it uses metaphorical language as if it was real and it's grounded in tactile sensations. That's been an influence. The interesting thing about Russian poetry is that most of it rhymes no matter how avant- garde it is. They don't usually keep the rhymes in the American translations.
Vito-Wasn't Yevtushenko's poetry also very critical of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia?
Thax-Well, it's hard not to be especially, 20th Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel edited by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He walked the line. Although he was the state poet of the USSR, he tried to present himself as a dissident He did all the compromises you have to do when you're working with he whole thing.
Thax-I was also very inspired by the beats and their philosophy of spontaneous writing.
Vito-Well when you prepare a poem for a rock concert is it all spontaneous?
Thax-I usually have something in mind. Before I came here I listened to some music on my space. Some bands I wanted to write for that never got around asking me to introduce them with poems. So I just listened to their music and it conjured up images.
Vito-Do you feel like your work has gotten more acceptances in the music world than the poetry community?
Thax-Well I'm more of a part of the music community than the poetry community, but I don't much care what people think. I'm respected in a way by both, but I don't like academics. I have no interest in being in Poetry magazine, but when someone from a magazine asks me to submit something it's supposed to be a sign of approval, but to me it doesn't matter.
Vito- Have you written anything with publication in mind?
Thax- There's a little magazine called Pitchfork that asked to publish something I wrote. But when they published it, they messed it all up. They didn't even get the line breaks right. I was disgusted. If I can get immediate satisfaction between 40,000 people at a Flaming Lips show, why should I care about publication? I don't even think Poetry magazine has that many people on the subscription list.
Vito-What were your objections to the Chicago Tribune article?
Thax-I called the writer, Kevin this week and told him I changed my mind. Many of my friends who know me well see that it's a distortion, but as a result of that article I have gotten so many nice e-mails and my space messages from strangers. Reading the article through the eyes of someone didn't know me it may have seemed good. They seemed overly interested in my love life.
Vito-Didn't it say that you were in love with only one person?
Thax-Well I was foolishly but deeply in love with someone in mid 90s. I had a chance to go to New York but I stayed here for him.
Vito-Can you tell you again about your experience with Jeffery Dahmer?
Thax-In the '80s, I was living a gay lifestyle and going to many gay clubs. The carol's Speakeasy was on the sleazy side next to the Bijou, a gay porn theater. I met some gay friends and we had dinner, danced and had a good time. Dahmer was with a group of friends and we met and danced. He was very friendly and I thought he would make a good friend. We might have even exchanged numbers. I even joked about his name, having an H instead of a U. I didn't know he was insane. When the story came out about him being a killer my heart sank. That was the golden age of serial killers because a bunch of the serial killers were around at the same time. People would warm me about this guy named Larry Eyler. He would pick up his victims where Reckless Records is now on Belmont. People in the community knew there was something wrong with him before he was arrested.
Vito-There's been a growing amount gay focused or queer literature programs and classes in academia. Has your sexual preference played a role in your poetry?
Thax-I'm not that happy with the way that's going. The reason that I don't read at many colleges or universities is that people don’t like the title of my book, The Tragic Faggot Syndrome. If it had the word “queer” in it, it would be ok. I'm unhappy with the monolithic queer academic culture. We're being told from above what we can do, and being an artist used to mean being extreme or individualistic. Then in the 80s when people like Edmund White started coming out, it became a homogenized culture. I'm angry about academics telling people how to behave or what to say. I'll call myself what I want to call myself.
Vito- I do think that sometimes non-offensiveness is valued over literary merit.
Vito-Do you think many academic poets have a condescending attitude towards street or so called saloon poetry?
Thax-Well I think they think it's all about power structures. Anything outside of the structure will be attacked like they did with the beats or they ignore it like they did with Bukowsky. They do this until it becomes part of the culture then they slip it into the curriculum.
Vito-Why do you think so many people now look down upon rhyme?
Thax-Well, I love it. Traditionally meter and rhyme have been the building blocks of poetry I think people hate rhyme now because of greeting cards. The great poets of the past used it very cleverly.
Vito-Can you tell me a little about your book and CDs?
Thax-Well, everyone kept saying they were going to publish me, and then they wouldn't do it. They treated the whole thing like it was some sort of joke. Brian got sick of this and he put out the book with some money he got from his grandmother. He'll be at the last Hideout show. I sold them all by 2002, and now they're going for $130 dollars on Amazon.
Vito-Why are you leaving Chicago?
Thax-There's a glass ceiling. I'm really well known here but I can't make a living. I don't even necessarily mean getting paid for the poetry. I haven't even been even able to get a music related position like being a door man at a club. I have to make a living somehow. I feel like I'm being tolerated. Because of the scensterism in Chicago I was never able to get a gig with a band. Scenesterism in Chicago. It holds people back from being creative because they always have to worry about what the scenesters think. That's no way to live, and I don't want to live that way. I think in Athens and Austin creativity is more valued.
Vito-Why did you decide to go to New York?
Thax-Well I was also thinking about going to Austin or Seattle, but then the record thing happened in New York, and it was a good excuse to move. I'm recording a CD there. It was a good excuse to move. I'm going to do quarter tone music there. If you put 24 notes in the scale instead of 12 and other chords sound a lot different. I want to perform with a band with a drummer that can do those tones and I will sing. Making rock star moves is foreign to me but I have wanted to do the quarter tone thing for years.
Vito- I hope you're successful.
Thax-Well I feel pretty optimistic.
Vittorio Carli teaches at Moraine Valley Community College, Richard J. Daley College, and Morton College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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