Sweaty Poetry Animals: An Interview with Azriel Johnson of Writing Knights Press
By Walter Beck
Earlier this evening, I sat down with Azriel Johnson, Grand High Poobah of Writing Knights Press to talk about his press and the upcoming three day poetry bash, known as “The Grand Tournament”, to celebrate one year of Writing Knights.
Walter: So tell my fans, followers and minions about Writing Knights Press and what you do there.
Azriel: Writing Knights Press began when I realized that the only way to get something done right was to do it yourself... okay that's a lie... it actually began with rejection...I had started hitting Local Cleveland Poetry events, namely Lix & Kix in Lakewood. At the same time I was spending a lot of time around DIY musicians who were making their own DA Levy style CDs and just having barrels of fun at the same time as this I was trying to get my name out into the Cleveland Scene by performing at a local coffee shop but I wasn't finding my voice as strongly as I would have liked.
Walter: So you basically took the DIY attitude of punk and made it work for poetry?
Azriel: Sort of... yeah... I took what I liked from the existing scene and put it into my own chapbook, saw how easy it was and asked my other poet friends if they'd like to join up, the events came after the first two chapbooks, mine and another poet's from Oregon. No one else was publishing me, and I still wanted to get my name out there so I had to do it myself.
Walter: I dig it. And how many writers since have joined your Midwestern poetry revolution at Writing Knights?
Azriel: Let’s see... as of the end of this month there will be 25 chapbooks, and the number of different performers/acts we've had I don't even know how many.
Walter: Damn, sounds like you've lit quite a fire. What about the feedback your writers have gotten? The reviews their books have received? Basically, what does the poetry underground think of Writing Knights Press?
Azriel: One of my recent authors has really gone crazy with promotion and has like two reviews and I think three more on the way... another has a couple reviews... one of our authors has his chapbook featured in an exhibition in Vancouver.
Walter: So the name is getting out there and I trust you're quite pleased with that.
Azriel: Trying. Definitely. I actually don't know what the underground thinks of Writing Knights, I’ve never had someone from the "underground" come up to me and say "thanks I love your work" but then again the underground is kind of subjective huh?
Walter: It is, trends come and go, people's tastes change. What sort of poetry are you looking for to carry the Writing Knights banner?
Azriel: Is it too pretentious to say "everything"? *laughs* Well that's basically the truth. We've had 25 books and they are all extremely different from one another. We do shy away from purely academic work only because I feel like purely academic doesn't speak to the heart as much, not saying there is anything wrong with academic in some senses... just saying.
Walter: Right I dig; it doesn't speak on that raw human level that you're looking for
Azriel: Sometimes... again everything is subjective. I’m sure somewhere there is some academic student who feels like his guts are being ripped out by a plain spoken book worm with no life experience. I’ve just not met that person yet.
Walter: Well keep an eye out
Azriel: I will.
Walter: Are you always on the lookout for new talent or do you only accept submissions during certain times of the year?
Azriel: We are always accepting new submissions. We have two main versions (but are looking at a third and eventually a fourth). The chapbook submission, which is a set of pieces (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, word related images) that reflect what the artist is trying to accomplish; then there are individual submissions which we post on the site to get more people interested in us in that sense..
Walter: What's your third version of submissions?
Azriel: The third is something we are calling "FourPlays" which are basically a mini chapbook consisting of 4 30 line or less poems. They are lower cost and easier to distribute.
Walter: Sort of like demo tapes? Sorry, I think in music.
Azriel: It’s okay I do too. I was thinking Singles... but yes.
Walter: Singles sounds better, still it's a good idea.
Walter: Well moving on from the ins and outs of Writing Knights Press, what's this we've heard about a three-day poetry battle going on in July?
Azriel: Well, in July Writing Knights reaches its one year anniversary and to celebrate we are having a poetry performance of epic proportions.
Walter: What can poetry fans and poets expect?
Azriel: A lot of poetry. There is bound to be intrigue and drama, probably vomiting, stage blood, rock and roll poetry.
Walter: I like your thinking. I mean, I'll just be honest with you, I've been to "poetry readings" and I find it boring as hell when somebody gets up there and reads their work with all the enthusiasm of a pile of dead dog shit and at the end the audience gives them the polite golf-course applause. That's dead poetry to me.
Azriel: I agree, which is something I’ve tried to avoid with Writing Knights events, there have been some snags, but we've been lucky that most of our performers have been performers and not just readers.
Walter: Sweaty savage poetry animals.
Azriel: The sweatier the better.
Walter: Now is this just a big festival bash or what? I mean, is there a competition? Prizes? Writers like free beer, just putting that out there.
Azriel: well it’s a festival and competition all in one. The intention is for 36 poets to gather to do battle in order to win one of three "real" book deals with Writing Knights.
Walter: We're talking full-length poetry books here, not just chapbooks?
Azriel: Yup, 100 page book for the winner, 50 page books for the two runners up, bound like real books and everything.
Walter: Sounds pretty enticing to me. How is this poetry competition judged?
Azriel: That is the million dollar question... we are actually working that out now... we're mulling ideas over, but we are probably going to let the other competitors judge it... there are going to be six pools of poets and poets from outside of a pool will be asked to judge it, that way no one can judge against their own immediate pool competitors.
Walter: Sounds about as fair as you can get.
Azriel: There have been some detractors from this idea saying someone might be advanced into the later rounds because someone might have a vendetta or might strategically vote them higher to have a better chance against them, but I figure either everyone is going to score fairly, or everyone is going to do this, either way it'll turn out fair.
Walter: Are they judged strictly on their poetry or on their performance as well?
Azriel: A combination... the bugs haven't been worked out but I am thinking: Command of Language, Command of their own Poetry, How they Affect the Audience...there will probably be some other things for the judges to consider.
Walter: So it's a total package deal when it comes to judging? Sounds like you got it figured out. Where is this big bash, when is it and how much does it cost to get in the door?
Azriel: Right now we don't have an admission price set... I'm not sure if there will be one...we might run strictly on donations... I have to work that out with the venue. I'd love to have it completely for free and only run on donations, but I'm hoping I can get a high profile poet to perform for us on the last day as a treat and we'll probably need to pay them.
Walter: Get a big name in there, eh? I think the crowd and the competitors both would love that. Anybody specifically you're considering or is that still on the drawing board?
Azriel: Drawing board mostly, but there are a few names I'd love to have: Billy Collins; Henry Rollins; Saul Williams...
Walter: I'd offer a few suggestions, but most of the big name poets I love are dead.
Azriel: Yeah well we can't get Jim Morrison so...
Walter: Unless you know somebody who's good at black magic who wants to try to resurrect Allen Ginsberg or Charles Bukowski.
Azriel: I unfortunately do not. I wouldn't mind bringing Shakespeare; I think he'd dig what we are doing.
Walter: Damn, well, there's always a catch ain't there? So if a poet out there wants to get in on this big bash, how do they sign up?
Azriel: They need to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org stating their intent to join the Tournament and any questions. Our publicist will respond with answers and remaining available time slots. Then the competitor will be asked to provide a 50 word or less bio to be introduced with.
Walter: How many slots are left open?
Azriel: As of this writing 34 of them we just got the OK on the venue yesterday.
Walter: Excellen.t Do you hope to do big bashes like this next year?
Azriel: if this one goes well definitely; I’d love to have one of these every year.
Walter: Well a bash full of sweaty rock n roll poetry animals sounds it could shake things up in the literature world Do you have anything else about this festival or Writing Knights Press that you want to share with my legions of fans, followers and minions? Or poetry in general or anything else? This is your chance to ramble about whatever's on your mind.
Azriel: Yeah, I'm hoping that the reach of Writing Knights can extend to every corner of the world. I want our audience to be everyone. I hope that everyone can find something they like in the Writing Knights catalogue. I think that poetry can be universal and that even the people who don't get it right away will still be challenged enough and inspired enough to try to get it, or if not, to try to make their own kind of expression. Our only real originality is our personal truth and we can express this truth through our work, no matter what it is.
Walter: I dig it, brother. Thanks for talking to me and we'll look forward the Writing Knights Grand Tournament.
Azriel: As will I. Thanks for your time.