Jacksonville’s poet laureate, Charles Alan Justiss, died on Valentine’s Day in 2011 of semi-natural causes. He left behind some 20,000 poems, hundreds of letters, many devoted friends and a handful of detractors.
Alan’s body of work is currently being housed in the University of North Florida English department thanks to the efforts of Nestor Gil, Clark Lunberry and Mark Creegan. These 3-D artists view Alan’s posthumous office as an installation piece even though it is locked and private. So begin the ambiguities. Alan Justiss received an office (pictured right) at UNF after his death, where he would not have been welcome in his life.
Alan began his life in Yukon, Florida, in 1943. Before it got swept up in the Duval County consolidation, it was just a little southern town. This is perhaps the locus of Jacksonville’s ambiguity; not being able to define itself as country or city. It may be this lack of clarity that inspires its people to leave and also draws them back.
Alan would leave and return to Jacksonville many times in the course of his life. At one point he ventured out to California where he met and fought Charles Bukowski. If you had met Alan, I’m sure this is one of the first stories he would’ve told you. After crisscrossing the country several times, taking a few wives and settling in Texas for a while, Alan came back to Jacksonville in the early 90s to die. He claimed he wanted to end his life where he began it. He spent those years plugging away at his typewriter, creating and deteriorating.
Every place that Alan lived during those years was set up like a monk’s cell. With some sort of cot, a writing desk, a typewriter, a radio that constantly streamed NPR, a coffee pot, piles of books, magazines, copies of the Folio Weekly which featured Alan or his friends. The walls would be covered with portraits of Alan, scattered images and bits of wisdom (from Alan himself, or another source) and his calendars, on which he marked the events of his days. There were spittoons and jars for urine. Alan also saved large red Folgers containers, though I never saw him reuse one, and other junk.
And there was always beer. Often, too, there would be company, those who brought the Milwaukee’s Best. Alan was apparently an alcoholic. Ambiguously, he was also devoted to his art.
His God was poetry. He longed for inspiration, always. Inspiration, he said, meaning breathing. He sat at his desk drinking and giving poetry a body to breath through. He attempted to be a conduit. He said he didn’t sit down and make poetry up, poetry made him up. Of all his self-mythologizing, I believe this.
Alan created in himself a legend. Here he was, the king of a pile of garbage, or what looked like a pile of garbage, and he never seemed to lose faith in his greatness as an artist. His life was difficult to make meaning of. Though not hard to create meaning from.
When Alan was sober, he was humble. He was a good listener and wonderful conversationalist. He was a mentor. He had (and still has) a great influence on many young Jacksonville artists who were fortunate enough to meet him. He had wisdom and he enjoyed sharing it.
When Alan was drinking without his typewriter, he could be difficult. Imagine hanging out at a bar and this wizened old man just stands up and starts projecting whatever comes to his mind. As if he were writing, or performing. You would be hard pressed to get him to stop once he got on a roll. And Gods forbid you interrupt the master poet. He would become aggressive, as drunks will. His good friend, the late Robert Eskew, would stop him simply by saying, “Get back to work, Maestro,” which made Alan laugh. Other friends stole the line.
Alan is said to have done other, less innocuous things, while drinking. I have witnessed him making passes at ladies and even inappropriately touching them. I have heard stories of him urinating and defecating on people’s possessions. I have seen him spit venomous insults at people. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of those myself.
For instance, Alan once gushed that I was “an angel,” so generous, so selfless. Within a few days the drunken Alan spat at me that I only gave people things so they would love me, that I was being manipulative. I was puzzled by this. He was describing the same motivation in both positive and negative light.
As friends of Alan’s, it was in our best interest to keep Alan at a typewriter while he was drinking. He would come up with beauties like You’ll Laugh in the Coming Years, or one of my favorites, Angel’s Blue Hour.
It’s no surprise that Alan, as a native of the difficult to define city of Jacksonville and a dubious fellow himself, often employed ambiguity in his poetry. Take, for instance, this stanza from Angel’s Blue Hour:
Nothing works out
as it should
it only does what
we remember to forget
More of his work can be viewed at Lukalips Destruction Co and Section 8 Magazine. If you’re lucky you might be able to find some of his chapbooks: Freedom at its Worst Angel, Fishing in the Dark, Solidarity (with Al Letson, G Jerome Jones and Nestor Gil), Rise in Love Do Not Fall (with Heather Sielicki) or Raw at a used book store. You aren’t likely to find Peeling Potatoes or Something About a Letter anywhere except among Alan’s things.
The collected works of Alan Justiss (and other detritus) will move from the UNF English Department to an installation at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum. The show, curated by Mark Creegan, will open September 7th, 2012. Nestor Gil Jr. is attempting to digitally and physically archive Alan’s work with the help of Lafayette College and various Jacksonville artists and institutions. Hopefully this will make Alan’s work more widely available.
1. Alan’s tombstone, photographed by Walter Coker.
2. Alan’s posthumous UNF office, picture by Nestor Gil.
3. Portrait of Alan Justiss by Nestor Gil from the series “personal journals,” picture by Nestor Gil.
4. Walter Coker and Nestor Gil balancing the collected works of Alan Justiss, pic by Troy Lukkarila.