Voices 2013: Johnny No Bueno

The Portland poet has shaped a redemption narrative from a troubled, restless life.

JOHNNY NO BUENO: "It's been a long trek all just to come back home," says No Bueno, whose knuckle tattoos spell out VAGABOND.
Intro Hales Parrish margulies Bueno Fred Wilker
Portland poet Johnny No Bueno smokes a cigarette and laughs with a friend outside of Backspace in Old Town, reminiscing about hopping rail cars and the dangerous life he’d once led. “I was supposed to be one of the ones that died,” he says.

At age 14, No Bueno (born Sean Bowers) was already selling drugs and carrying a gun. He took his first road trip, to San Francisco, to escape his parole officer and troubled family. He spent years on the run and—now sober and reformed—returned in 2010 to Portland, where he's become a leading figure in the city's poetry scene.

His new poetry collection, We Were Warriors (University of Hell Press), draws from his past life. No Bueno, 32, is an editor for Criminal Class Press, runs a reading series at St. Johns Booksellers called "Them's Fightin' Words," and is a fixture of the Portland Poetry Slam.

We talked to No Bueno about grit, Ginsberg and what he owes the underworld. 

You grew up initially in Portland in a very difficult family situation.
My father was a computer programmer for Portland General Electric during the day. At night, he was a drunken biker. A violent drunken biker. My mother's always been in between jobs. Most of the time, she's a bartender. I lived with my father in the suburbs, and even at a young age I was busing into the city. Hanging out on the corner. Going to Powell's and stuff like that. Then my father got sick of me when I was 11. I was a troublemaker. Always in trouble. Always lying, always stealing.

You ran into trouble with the law early on.
My father sent me to live with my mother in a trailer park in Canby. I started burglarizing. I first got busted for burglary when I was 12, then I started getting shipped around to foster homes.

My father couldn't deal with me. My mother couldn't deal with me. She told me they were going to come take me the next day to MacLaren [Youth Correctional Facility]. So I ran away. And I stayed gone for a couple of months. My mom convinced me to turn myself in. So I turned myself in and then began my in-and-out of MacLaren and Hillcrest [Youth Correctional  Facility]. 

The first time I was in Hillcrest, I was in a work-release camp in Florence when my father was murdered on Christmas. So that took home out of the equation entirely.

When did you start writing?
My father took me to Powell's and got me the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe at the age of 7. I was an avid reader at this point. I fell in love with the musicality—the cadence of "The Raven," the language of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and my favorite Poe poem, "The Conqueror Worm." I was like, wow, you can do that with words. Musicians do some cool stuff, but not this. This is magic.

Somewhere around 11 or 12, I was reading Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg—that's when I started really trying to write poetry. Horrible. Horrible. Roses are red. Violets are blue. Yeah, it was bad.

You started writing poetry at age 12?
I wanted to be a child prodigy at something. The only thing I was prodigious at was failure and heavy narcotic use.

The first time I ran away to San Francisco, I found a copy of "Howl." So by flashlight while sleeping in Golden Gate Park I read "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. And I knew at that point that I wanted to be a writer. I was extremely attention deficit, so I couldn't read a whole novel, but I could read poetry.

I get to Boston [for] the first time in 1999 or 2000, and there's a bookstore in Harvard Square called the Harvard Coop. I'm at the poetry shelf just looking for something to steal. They come in and put a book on the shelf called The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. This huge, thick, 900-page tome. They're talking about Bukowski, people that I vaguely knew of from the San Francisco spoken-word scene like Bucky Sinister. They have poems by Walt Whitman, Tupac Shakur, Bob Dylan.

I was planning on stealing books. I spent the $20 on the book and it was the greatest $20 I ever spent in my entire life.

What did you want to accomplish with We Were Warriors?
This book is my concession speech from a life of living on the road, shooting heroin. Trying to be this street-corner hoodlum—not trying. I was fairly successful at that.

It's a way of me letting go: Here, this is what I owe the underworld. This is what I owe the underbelly of society. I owe heroin. I owe every heroin dealer. I owe every prostitute. Every dirty cop. Every homeless person. Every person locked up. I owe them my existence.

If it wasn't for them to shape me, I wouldn't have a book. I owe everything—all the good stuff in my life—to the bad stuff in my life.

You haven't always been a fan of slam poetry readings, but you helped create and run a reading series in North Portland called "Them's Fightin' Words."
Bucky Sinister introduced me to a man named Marty Kruse who has since passed from cancer. Marty Kruse, he organized the book-buyers union at Powell's. He used to organize the selling of merchandise at national poetry slams. I really admired him greatly. 

As he started getting sick with cancer, he was working at St. Johns Booksellers and he was trying to get this reading series off the ground, and he wasn't able to do it. I was asked by the head of St. Johns Booksellers to head that up. And so this was an opportunity to kind of give Portland a blue-collar reading. And that's kind of the direction I want to go with it.

Portland has a tendency to attract middle to upwardly mobile white kids with lots of money. And they do really cool projects and it's very neat. Nothing wrong with it. Ultimately, I watch blue-collar writers just get overshadowed by kitschiness.

And "Them's Fightin' Words" is the last Friday of every month at St. Johns Booksellers at 7 o'clock.

What should poetry do for a community?
It should inform culture. Form culture. Or subculture. Or counterculture. It should form it. The way that I see it in the whole world as far as politics and everything: Poetry is the consciousness of a society. It's the angel or the devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear. And in that regard, it is kind of forming. And whether that be to pay attention to beauty or to stand up and scream in a protest.

What sort of voices do you try to make sure are represented?
As an editor for Criminal Class Press, I take the name of the press into great consequence when reading.

I look for people who may not have traditional education surrounding poetry, but who are still subtly pushing the boundaries whatever literary devices they may use. All the while, I'm looking for a certain kind of aesthetic. I've accepted submissions that may not be criminal, but they set a tone of insanity or they set a tone of depravity and desperation.

I look for blue-collar. I look for poems that probably would not get represented in other places, because of the content or the tone of the poem. One of the questions I always ask myself when I'm reading a poem, "Would this get published anywhere else? Might this scare another publisher?"

And now you're working on a memoir.
I'll probably have a second collection of poetry by next holiday season. My memoir is a longer project. Because my life is so disjunctive, I'm unaware of the chronology of my life to a great extent. I finally found a direction I want to go. It partly deals with homelessness and kind of the things homeless kids have to do for the sake of survival.

I'm definitely a fucking basket case. I get cranky. And I'm a raw nerve most days. But I love it. For the first time in my life, I have hope. I have direction. 

I may be a cranky, pessimistic, cynical old bastard, but I lead a really blessed life. My life is 100 times greater than I ever wished it could be. Nothing but gratitude, even if I don't always show it. It takes a lot of hard work to be able to continue that. Ultimately, my hope is to be able to give back what has been so freely given to me. And that's hope, direction. 

WWeek 2015

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