Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)
"A mentor once told me that if you care about what you’re doing you should just keep doing it, no matter what anyone else thinks.” -Joshua Young
Punk Rock Poet
Joshua Young is a poet, musician, filmmaker, fiction writer, and graduate student in the MFA Poetry program, where he is crafting an ambitious thesis that pays homage to an important era of rock music.“I write wherever I can,” poet Joshua Young explains as he navigates Laurie’s Planet of Sound, the Lincoln Square resident’s local record and video shop. “I take random notes on ‘L’ trains, in front of the TV, when I’m listening to records, when I’m … what’s this? John Cassavetes’ The Incubus? That’s weird…”
It’s not surprising that the Washington state transplant’s attention wanders. The thirty year-old MFA Poetry student is a ravenous cultural omnivore, ingesting all manner of media, resulting in genre-defying disciplinary mash-ups (his 2011 White Knuckle Press chapbook, To The Chapel of Light, is “A Short Film-in-Verse,” and his 2012 Gold Wake Press full-length, When the Wolves Quit, is “A Play–in-Verse”). This appetite to blur literary lines and blend art forms has pushed Young to become perhaps one of the most prolific artists in the Columbia College Chicago community.
In addition to placing more than fifty poems, stories, essays, reviews, and articles in various publications over the last year, Young has recently published two books of experimental poetry, began archiving eight years of musical projects online, and his third feature film, Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes? (a writer-ly, gay, interracial, beyond-the-grave love story), has been touring the festival circuit. Considering his toner-draining CV, it’s impressive that Young is able to focus on two topics that he’s truly excited about: his experiences at Columbia (and the circuitous route that brought him here), and his thesis project.
“Three years ago I got a fellowship and a teaching position at Columbia,” he recalls, “but my mentor from graduate school”—that’s Western Washington University, where Young received an MA in English—“convinced me New Mexico State would be a good place for me. He was wrong. The professors were good, but my wife and I hated the town so much that I called Tony Trigilio, and I said, ‘I know I said no, but can I please come?’ Thankfully, he said, ‘Yes.’ I love living in Chicago, and it’s been great working with Tony. Because I don’t adhere to any genre rules and I blur the lines, I didn’t know how supportive this place would be of my poetry. But Tony likes narratives and he likes projects.”
Young’s most ambitious project is his thesis—a historical fiction novella composed of poems and found material from his own email inbox. The project is also his most narrative. It tells the tale of an imagined early 80s Seattle hardcore punk scene that combines research about legendary bands like Black Flag, the Minutemen, and Minor Threat, with an imagined Pacific Northwest band that played alongside the greats, but is forgotten today.
The work, which explores homophobia, teen introspection, police brutality, and outsider communities, was originally conceived as a screenplay about an aging 60s cover band (Young has been involved in cinema for a decade since his twin brother, Caleb, recruited him to act in and help write his films). But the scribe soon realized that the punk bands he had played in since his teens owed a debt to their early 80s forbearers that he could repay in verse.
“The more I realized that the music I listened to and loved only happened because bands like Black Flag toured relentlessly, cracking the underground wide open across the country, the more I wanted to figure out a way of saying a thank you,” Young says. “I would never be able to do what I do without this movement.”
What makes the thesis project so bold is the postscript, which features Young’s actual, unedited email exchanges with a more knowledgeable music fan giving the poet a crash course in Hardcore 101. Considering that the worst stigma in the punk scene is to be branded a “poser,” this lengthy, seductively awkward section reads like a WikiLeaks document revealing the emperor’s nakedness, leaving the writer vulnerable yet also empowering him. Without this pulling-back-of-the-curtain, Young’s gritty, detail-rich writing could certainly convince many readers his reports were factual, sending record collectors on futile searches for fictional singles. “I was born in ’81,” he shrugs, “so I couldn’t be part of this scene, but I never considered not doing this just because I’d be called a poser. A mentor once told me that if you care about what you’re doing you should just keep doing it, no matter what anyone else thinks.”
Back at Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Young’s eyes dart between his cell phone (his wife, at home with their eighteen-month old, reminds him to pick up toilet paper), a Black Flag poster, and a VHS copy of Basquiat. (“Strangely, the actor who plays him uses the same mannerisms as the guy from Counting Crows,” he says.) But the poet’s multitasking briefly comes to a halt as he thoughtfully reflects on why his move to Columbia has been so rewarding.
“The range of poets at this school is insane,” he enthuses. “No one writes like me, and not one teacher is the same aesthetically, voice-wise or stylistically. It’s the same with students—everyone is so different, which makes us really good readers of each other’s work.” Ignoring the rack of punk rock CDs he’s instinctively flipping through, Young’s perpetual motion machine of a mind seemingly transports the busy scholar to his South Loop academic stomping grounds. “This place is so supportive it’s ridiculous!”