A body of words

“I believe that poetry is a long piece of hungry momentum. It’s a living organism,” declares Asheville-based poet Keith Flynn. He truly believes that poetry is as fundamentally human as a heartbeat. The words are propelled like blood to a heartbeat rhythm. The rhythm is in our bodies, those giant liquid drums, and the melody is everywhere.

As Flynn is so fond of saying, “The disdain of poetry is an unnatural act.”

For more than a decade, the Madison County native served as front man for a nationally touring rock group, The Crystal Zoo. And though the band is no longer together, Flynn still wears the trappings of a rocker, the dark glasses and long hair covering a low, rumbling voice. He projects the image of a man one could easily imagine living a day-to-day life on that eternal musician’s escape: The Road.

“It’s much simpler to tour on your own than with a rock band, of course,” said Flynn during a recent phone interview. “Traveling in a rock band is a little bit like running a pirate ship. With a band, the guys have a lot of presence — they take up a lot of space, and they all have their own appetites. When you’re traveling alone, you never have to worry about having a mutiny pulled on you.”

Flynn is in the midst of an extensive solo tour promoting his most recent release, a spoken-word-and-music fusion titled Nervous Splendor that pulls poems from all three of his published works. Flynn often combines his own dramatic readings with fragments of song and talking-blues-inspired transitions, a penchant that has set him apart from more academic poets at collective readings.

“There is always a mad, culpable need to see an audience sweat, and break down that third wall,” said Flynn. “There’s a certain intimacy in my shows that makes the audience a part of the performance.”

In fact, it was Flynn’s signature style of performing his poetry — his particular mixing of music and spoken word — that prompted repeated requests for an album emulating the experience of his live shows.

“In my readings, there is a lot of a cappella singing, and people wanted to get a copy of it,” Flynn revealed. “It seemed like at every single gig I was doing, people were saying, ‘Where’s a record of this?’ Some of my closest people told me to get into an overdub studio and record as much of this as possible.”

To Flynn, no stranger to recording from his Crystal Zoo days, the idea seemed like winner. He did, however, have some reservations about the project. For one, he’d just finished a yearlong tour; and for another, he was set to record in a New York City studio mere weeks after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was a critical-mass time for me to be in New York doing those poems,” Flynn recalled. “The building I was in kept getting bomb threats, and we only had two days that were uninterrupted by some sort of security problem. It was sort of looming over the whole proceedings, and there’s a bit of that emotion in those performances.”

Bomb threats or no, Flynn was able to complete the album’s poetry tracks within a month, but it would take him nearly two years to fully complete Nervous Splendor‘s musical elements.

“I was really worried about how the album would come out,” Flynn confessed. “I didn’t know if all that material would find a cohesion that would allow it to flow. It’s got spoken-word pieces, a cappella singing and some rock stuff. I wasn’t sure about it when I started, but now I think it works. It gives a listener some context to what I’m about, and what I’ve been trying to write in the last 20 years.”

And while longtime Asheville poetry scenesters may best remember Flynn as the growl-voiced rocker with a poem or two up his sleeve, his nationally touring poet persona has become much more than that. Although Flynn is based in Asheville, he’s spent much of his time during the past decade on the road, reading, performing and promoting both his own works and the Asheville Poetry Review — the respected, internationally distributed journal he founded (Flynn still serves as the publication’s managing editor). All three of his poetry collections are still in print, and though he may still play the rocker from time to time, the eyes behind the sunglasses burn with the hope of a literary legacy.

“The idea of a rock poet is no longer such an alien force in our culture,” said Flynn. “From Bob Dylan to Patti Smith and Jim Morrison to Tom Waits, there’s a long tradition. I think I sort of fit in that grouping.”

And what of his own rock-poet image?

“It would be difficult to concoct a persona if you didn’t have one naturally,” Flynn pronounced. “Every performer wants to have a certain amount of charisma, but either you have it or you don’t. There are many academic poets whose work I absolutely adore, and yet it’s astonishing how many of them read their work badly. The page is a cold bed, but a poem also has to live in the air.

“In this day and age, poetry has to do both things.”

Keith Flynn will read from his works at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Sunday, Dec. 7, starting at 3 p.m. For more information, call 254-6734.


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