City Lights opens its Fall events season this Thursday, September 8 at 7PM with a special tribute to a cherished Bay Area poet. Join us as we celebrate the life and works of Justin Chin and a new book, Justin Chin: Selected Works, edited by Jennifer Joseph & published by Manic D Press.
The event will be hosted by Jennifer Joseph and will feature colleagues & writers who will be reading Justin’s work: Kevin Killian, Rabih Alameddine, filmmaker Henry Machtay, Larry-Bob Roberts, Thea Hillman, Maw Shein Win, Alvin Orloff, and Daphne Gottlieb.
With permission of Jennifer Joseph and Manic D, it is our pleasure to publish two short commentaries by Michelle Tea and Rabih Alameddine which appear alongside the poems they describe in Justin Chin: Selected Works.
Gutted used to be my favorite book by Justin, and then 98 Wounds happened. Justin’s latest book was always my favorite, partly because I was so hungry, always, for his particular brand of tragedy and absurdity, decay and sweetness, nightmares and pop culture. The way Justin brought it all in, everything, the whole gamut of life and its clashing crashing attendant emotions – it was as if the entire human experience, rendered shamelessly, fearlessly, honestly, comically, was available to you. A complete complicated world of feelings.
It had been a while since I’d picked up Gutted, and the first poem, “Tonight, again,” destroyed me. Its simple, raw force, its undercurrent of compassion, of self-compassion, the poet showing the poet tenderness for he knows his weaknesses, knows the stakes of them, and is about to go there anyway.
The grind of the poem feels like a body memory. What is the narrator after: dangerous sex, the heady obliteration of wine, of drugs? It’s all in there, pick your poison, pick all of them. The choice to knowingly indulge your compulsion, the longing not just for pleasure or oblivion but wreckage, too. A litany of pharmaceuticals appears among the vices, reminding us that Justin had a relationship with chemicals, with his body’s need and mortality, that surpassed simple addiction. He lived as long as he did thanks to chemicals; he wrote about it often.
Reading “Tonight, again,” I imagined Justin as the little boy in the poem’s last line, making a final, affirming peace with his spectacular failures . . . holy spooks . . . brilliant bugaboos. We watched in grief and fear as another one of our own took that solo journey into death. I hope there is another side; I hope I find him there someday, again.
For those of us who came to terms with being queer during the AIDS years, Justin was a beacon of light—well, a somewhat strange light, a beckoning beacon of fucked-up light: Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you not rest exactly, but the burden-lifting sigh when someone gets you. Come onto me, all you queers, you freaks, homos, all you night crawlers, you weirdos, dwellers of the margins, and I’ll show you what’s up.
At a time when most of the writing that was supposed to reflect our lives was maudlin claptrap, Justin’s poetry polished the rust off my heart. The world we lived in was crazy; he reflected that, not some sentimentalized image of it. No last trips to Paris, no post-funeral packing of fabulous sweaters in suitcases given by parents who lived in the old country of Oklahoma, no angels descending from Heaven to witness a saintly lover’s final words. When we were overwhelmed with grief that should not have been borne by anyone, he refused to soil his acerbic tongue with trite.
James Baldwin once wrote, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty . . . the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart.” I don’t know if Justin had a fear of life, but if he did, he was so over it. And he certainly had no aversion to experience, any experience.
In his poems, he referenced high and low art, he mixed the mundane with the sublime, the arcane with argot, because it was how he experienced life. But it was also how he was able to break through a reader’s defenses. In this poem, excerpted from Gutted, he opens with the sappiest of all images, Ali MacGraw’s death scene from Love Story, which isn’t just lowbrow art, it’s the lowest of the low, no one can limbo that. Granted a reader should be wary—I mean, just a tiny bit, you know, Justin is talking about the big D, but really, Ali MacGraw? Let’s make fun of her. And then he gets cheesier—I mean, Greta and Nicole and karaoke? That’s just silly. And funny. No, not Terms of Endearment, don’t go there, Justin. He does. He builds up to the corniest movie death scene yet, Bette Midler in The Rose. Yikes. He certainly has his pop culture down. R. Kelly, anyone? And then, in the gut, the sucker punch.
How can a reader prepare for that?
I wasn’t prepared for his absence.
For more, definitely check out Justin Chin: Selected Works via Manic D or ask for it at your local independent bookseller. Join us on Thursday, September 8 for this great event with very special guests. More about Justin Chin here.