By Kara Vernor
Not all of us drop from the womb writers. In 1991, when I was seventeen, none of the books I read—Vonnegut, Kerouac, Nin—made me feel as connected to the world as the music I listened to, as Courtney Love in a slip dress screaming: “Is she pretty from the inside/Is she pretty from the back.” That was all I needed, really, that emotional quick fix, those urgent jabs on the electric guitar. Plus, unlike reading and writing, which I did alone in my room, music brought me into contact with Real Live People—in gushing talk of mutual fandom, through traded mix tapes, at live shows in boiling pits of longhaired boys. So it was with modest expectations that I went with my overage boyfriend one winter night to see some old musician named Jim Carroll perform “spoken word.” Not written? Not sung?
My young eyes thrilled to find the community center packed with people dressed as they would for a club show—in trench coats and combat boots, black leather jackets and, yes, even berets. Carroll took to the stage looking much the same. He resembled David Bowie but with wider set eyes and a heavier brow. He chatted some before launching into his reading, which to my delight, proved profane, funny, and at times, disturbing. A writer of both poetry and prose, he had grown up in New York, done a ton of heroin, and been friends with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Like a concert, his reading was electric; it was amplified through a PA to an audience who whistled between stories as they would between songs. There was even a merch table with CDs for sale, which is how I went home with his spoken word album, Praying Mantis.
I slipped it into my pop-top CD boom box and discovered most of its twelve tracks were short, between twenty-one seconds and six minutes. Without seeing Carroll’s words on the page, genre dropped into the background. Was he reading poetry, personal essay, or fiction? It wasn’t always clear. What imprinted was not genre, but the characters and quick arc. These tracks, like his spoken word performance, said: write about something—any lewd or cheeky or demented thing you’d like—but keep it short. Like a song. Entertain, evoke, step off the stage.
In Carroll’s apathetic, waggish voice, I found the irreverence and transgression I loved in music more lushly illustrated. Carroll creates paradoxical portraits of
the lonely, the marginalized, and the depraved, the ways they’re doomed, hilarious or heroic. One piece that pays homage to a prostitute ends, “She walks and walks because no one can ever make her price.” Others tell of a race his girlfriend holds between her pubic lice and his, a friend whose mother, upon learning John F. Kennedy has been shot, discovers her son masturbating with a cut of veal from the fridge. It was punk rock to my ears, Carroll’s subversive blend of lowbrow subject matter and highbrow fluency.
Because Praying Mantis was a CD, I began patching its tracks into the mix tapes I made, kicking off compilations of indie anthems for the disaffected with Carroll’s “Sampling Nietzsche”:
Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me only serves to make me stronger.” My version is: What does not kill me only serves to make me sleep until 3:30 the next afternoon.
When I asked a friend about a mix I’d given her, I didn’t just ask if she dug that Afghan Whigs song, I asked if she thought that story about Carroll’s one night as a performance artist who exterminates a cockroach on stage with a can of Raid, was ohmygod so good.
Praying Mantis’ accessibility, short tracks and implicit rejection of categories then guided my first attempts at writing for others. I started making and distributing zines, drawn to another compressed medium that braids forms. My first piece not self-published was a nonfiction flash series, very much in the vein of Carroll’s personal essays, called “The History of My Boobs: A Catastrophe in Four Parts” (and, yes, in retrospect I see two parts would have been more apt). It appeared on a website that was home to the graphic goth character Emily the Strange. Had it been published in a journal (there were very few online journals at the time), I doubt I would have received numerous emails from girls all over the country who wrote to me about their boobs, emails that made me feel as connected to other people as music ever had. Though I drifted toward fiction, finding more freedom there, I continued to favor the greater access of online publishing where flash just so happens to reign.
In Jim Carroll I found a gateway drug, one that expanded the world and made me feel more at home in it. He showed me how writing could build community and how sentiments from my favorite music could exist sans instrumentation with similar brevity and voltage. By illuminating these overlaps between music and prose, he provided the inspiration and blueprint for the kind of stories I wanted to read and write—stories that entertain, evoke, and then step off the stage.
Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, No Tokens, PANK, Green Mountains Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She is an Elizabeth George Foundation Scholar at Antioch University LA and was a 2015 Best Small Fictions finalist. Her chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.