James McCrary - an introduction


an introduction to the man and his work

by John Fowler

from a video tape produced by Jurado for the Flying Fish Poetry Show, 1994, NY, NY

© copyright 1994 John Fowler

P.O. Box 20805
Columbus Circle Station
New York, New York 10023


It's November 20th, 1993 and we're in New York City where Jim is in town for the U.S. premier of Black Rider, the opera created by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and William Burroughs. Back in Lawrence, Kansas, where Jim is coming from, he works part time for Burroughs Communications, teaches poetics at the Lawrence Arts Center and runs the Lawrence, Kansas Poetry Slams.

Jim is an old friend from the early days of the Lawrence scene. He arrived in Lawrence in 1965 just as things were beginning to happen and stayed longer than many, until 1981. He was active in everything that went on, the poetry readings, the Midwest Artists' Coop, the publication of GRIST magazine, the be-ins, protests, and general revolutionary mayhem and good times that made up those years in the late 60s. He was even an employee of our Abington Book Shop, the "City Lights" of the Midwest, for a while. But how Jim managed to survive seemed to be more a function of less, rather than more, and certainly not as the result of any steady job, or status as student at the University of Kansas, the local college. Hanging out, getting down, were his forte, with folks like S. Clay Wilson, Charlie Plymell and the stream of poets that passed through Lawrence on the way back and forth from coast to coast or who appeared for a few weeks or a semester or two as visiting writers at the University. People like Ed Sanders and the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, Ken Irby, John Hawkes, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, David Ignatow, all preceded William Burroughs to Lawrence; and many more fertilized the minds and imagination of feverish Kansans in the years between 1965 and 1969. The motto in those days was "Just do it" and Jim did it.

What happened between 1970 and 1981 when Jim left Lawrence is not well known to me but from what he has said during this visit, things deteriorated from a state of hyperactivity and creativity to one of expected dullness and typical Midwestern-ness as the programs at the University were dropped, gifted students left or never came and and others scattered to various communes, teaching positions or simply dropped back in.

Jim went west--to Sonoma, California where he earned a BA and Masters in Creative Writing at Cal State, Sonoma were he studied with David Bromige. But rather than the typical college student- -let's see Jim would have been over 40 by then--my memory of him in those days comes from a brief visit I made to him in a dilapidated farm house, his lifetime preferred type of abode, out in some dusty valley north of San Francisco in mid-summer, with him sprawled on a broken-down couch, and the floor littered with beer bottles.

It recently came as no small surprise to me to see Jim's work again after all these years. It was only a few months ago that I brought home a copy of a "Long News in the Short Century", a poetry magazine published here in New York with a poem of Jim's in it. "Look what I found," I said to Sara, "a mag with a poem of McCrary's." Little did I know that four collections had been published, as well as appearances in "Exquisite Corpse", "Texture", "Caliban", "Avec", and other magazines including the new magazine "First Intensity" edited by Lee Chapman, another former Lawrecean, who now lives in Staten Island.

The re-encounter with McCrary was refreshing in many ways because it was so much of a piece with the way I remembered Jim as being--one who accepts no bullshit, who insists on a degree of honesty and a clarity of perception that few of us can achieve; who writes in the stark simplicity of language, really nailing the hypocrisy of attitudes often masked by a hyper-pious phoniness which calls forth a characteristic snort of disgust from Jim. "Jim McCrary," Charlie Plymell has said, "works the Kansas idiom into his realism and draws special attention to associative levels of meaning or double meaning, reminding us of a Kansan who doesn't want to waste any words, or a gunfighter who lets his riding (reading) partner take it any way he wants it." I'd add that the "Kansas idiom" that Plymell refers to, comes not only from the daily, spoken tongue but also from many days and nights of pondering the prairie and the spirits that arise from it viewed from the lonely back porches of spooky old abandoned farmhouses. Those spirits may take the form of legendary gunfighters--remembering the days when wearing a pistol on your hip was a seal and a sign of your rebellion and your will to change the world in some way--or the may take the form of a coyote's howl or the form of a man imitating a coyote's howl. The long, ritualistic, shamanistic, meditations buried deep in bales of Douglas County hemp, and the organic myths that live in the long nights of silence and wonder where horizons disappear in a distance that is beyond the stretch of any one man's imagination.

But whereas I go off into a mystic rant, Jim comes down hard and straight into the hidden psyche of yesteryear, finding there a revelation of humanity with which we can only nod in agreement. "True, yes that's true," we assent, like knowledgeable old men sitting in our preferred rocking chair in front of the Lawrence, Kansas Rock Chalk Cafe. Once again, as Plymell says, "Though some of his poems require that special Kansas wild esoteric-humor to fully appreciate, most of them bring it right home...."

The simplicity of language, the sparseness of the word on the page, the way a few words stretched my mind across big spaces, all this is here. But it is as if the whole process has been abstracted, has become abstract, even philosophical in a high- flown, that is, on a "high" philosophical level. The interconnectedness and continuity of image and idea is so strong on first reading that the fact that one piece ends and another begins, and exactly where that occurred, may be missed. He speaks of light and suddenly the lines are even shorter than before, often only one word, and we hear the breath working, the tension of in-taken air caught at the top of the lungs before the word is exhaled or expelled or let gently and softly out to assume the shape of the meaning that Jim is causing to arise in our mind by his choosing of it. And because of his choosing we are drawn to focus, or into focus, by that image, abstract or seemingly immaterial as it may be. The first meditation on light and fog, I realize, is only the extension of a mode of consciousness that I observed in Jim years ago as he squinted out from under a broken down straw hat to inspect a particular portion of Kansas landscape. It was a seeing into the depths of, a listening to, and a concentration on, the materials before him, a Kansas way of looking applied to "The effect of sun, light, shadow, cold and rain on upper Noe Valley...."

A meditation on lines. Lines. The line of barbed-wire fences, the lines of poems, the tracks of the railroad and its engines, the lines that, taken in by whatever means--sight, sound, inhalation--are once again, reach into, or propel us into: space--lines, which by their mere mention to one who has experienced them, open up perspectives heretofore only fitfully recalled.

This ability to open things up for us--while at the same time grounding us in our own experience--and the regeneration of the meanings stored in folk myths and heroes, stories of the land, stories of the people, this re-energy-ation is the accomplishment that I admire most in Jim McCrary. It is his trueness to his chosen vocation all the years I have known, and known of him; it is the on-going, full-time commitment of his very life to the vocation of poet/see-er and his ability to render that which he sees, that I envy, and would point out to you.


Go to Poems of the Place by James McCrary
Go to West of Mass by James McCrary