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Janaka Stucky Brings a Doom-Metal Mysticism to His Poetry Readings

"I want to channel the energy of each performance into conjuring whatever altered state of consciousness I was in when I wrote the work."

by Laura Hutson Hunter
Jun 5 2019, 8:15pm

Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz

With his black shirtsleeves rolled up, Janaka Stucky performs poetry readings like he's part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part doom-metal frontman.

“I want the performance to be an initiatory experience,” the poet told VICE. “I want to channel the energy of each performance into conjuring whatever altered state of consciousness I was in when I wrote the work. I want to enter that altered state of consciousness while I'm performing, so that those performances are actually invocations, or even incantations.”

Stucky's book-length epic poem Ascend Ascend was written over 20 days spent in and out of trance states while secluded in a 100-year-old church. Which sounds like an over-the-top creative practice, more of a hedonistic psychedelic orgy than the staid Robert Frost-ish model, and it is—but Stucky is so deeply grounded in the occult that he’ll make you forget that there’s anything unusual about any of that. For him, climbing those church steps, lighting incense, dropping acid, and creating some of the most ecstatic lines of verse you’ve ever read is just another day at the office.

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“Ascend Ascend” was released in April through Jack White's Third Man Books, whose inaugural title was Stucky's last book, the poetry collection The Truth Is We Are Perfect. The volume looks like an album cover—its hand-drawn letters and illustration of a moth nose-diving upward invoke the crust-punk, black metal posters of Stucky's youth. It's an aesthetic that's also appreciated by the publishing arm of Third Man Records, which is just one of the benefits of the relationship—if nothing else, Stucky jokes, it lets him brag about sharing a publisher with Iggy Pop.

But even without Third Man's direct influence, Stucky's book tour operates a lot like a series of metal shows. At a recent show in New York, he performed alongside award-winning composer Mark Korven, who wrote the soundtrack for The Witch. Joining him on a few upcoming dates in Seattle is former Nirvana cellist Lori Goldston, who currently plays with the metal band Earth.

With his shaved head and graying beard, Stucky could almost pass as an actor in a Kenneth Anger film, or perhaps a young Rob Halford. He performs the readings with his tattooed arms outstretched, a colorful six-winged seraphim on one arm, a Sanskrit mantra on the other. He shakes and sweats and, by the time he's finished, transforms his audience.

“I explode in blood sublimely my blood / A hymn a choral canticle of dying / Which sings beyond all thought / Until I reach the pit”

The poem uses repetition like the drone in a metal song. These trancelike performances replicate his creative process, which is informed by mystical traditions he began to absorb in childhood. Stucky explains how his parents met with the easy tones of someone rehashing an oft-repeated family anecdote: “They were following their guru around the world.”

“[My parents] came to [mysticism] from different sorts of classical backgrounds,” he explained. “My mom was an atheist living in New York, hanging out with jazz musicians and wearing chicken bones. And my dad was a hippie who messed around with a bunch of different cults and got involved with various types of psychedelic substances.”

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Instead of rebelling against his family's traditions, Stucky says he quickly reconciled the faith of his family with his own punk-rock ethics. “To me, that's the draw of mysticism—that there is a way to both have that experience of the divine, but have it as a direct unmediated access. That experience is very liberating and freeing—and anarchic, in a way," he said.

Which brings us back to the methods he used to create Ascend Ascend. For the two months of his residency, he developed a ritual: Rising at dawn, he would climb a few flights of spiral stairs and a ladder, through a trapdoor into a tiny room at the top of the church tower. Inside the small, 7-by-7-foot room, he lit sandalwood and sage incense and began to work, entering into the trance-like states that he’d been practicing since adolescence, quickened with fasting and chanting.

By the end of the day, he would gather with other artists, all of whom were deep in their own occult-related practices. One night, they decided to take acid together, and just as it was kicking in, a board member asked if anyone needed a 200-foot scroll. That scroll ended up being the material that Stucky transcribed his entire poem onto—it happened to be exactly the right length.

“It reminds me of this quote by Alan Watts,” he continued, tossing around philosophical aphorisms with the casualness of someone who was raised by mystics. “There's no real way to satori, so the path you follow makes no real difference.” Depending on your perspective, that can be encouraging or disheartening—for a spiritual anarchist like Stucky, it's all a wash.

“To paraphrase William Blake, the creative act is the moment between the pulsations of an artery,” Stucky said. “To me, the mystical experience is that silence between heartbeats.” He compares the ecstatic experience to music once again—this time to the experimental drone metal band Sunn O))).

“I was talking with a friend just today about the new Sunn O))) record,” he added. “He was saying that one of the tracks on the record abruptly cuts off at the end, and that track is particularly loud and drone-y and ringing. So when it cuts off, there's this quality of the silence that's as beautiful as the track itself."

“That's what I want to do in my poems. I want the silence between the breaths in the poem to be beautiful. To me, that's the moment when we lose ourselves—that's the mystical moment.”