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Late to the Game(s): Poetry and pop culture

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

We can’t just watch monster movies, read comics, and play video games all the time. Sometimes we need something different. Sometimes we need other art – ugly, beautiful art. To see it. To hear it. To feel it. And sometimes that art needs to be poetry. 

Or maybe that’s just me. 

I think it’s fair to say without the poetry and spoken word community, and friends who literally pulled me in front of a microphone for the first time, I would not be the man I am today. They forced me to overcome a fear of public speaking that no teacher had yet been able to conquer, and did it with all the compassion and support a bashful young man could ever ask for. 

Ever since, the spoken word has been a big part of my life – as a performer, a spectator, and an organizer. It has given me a sense of community and fostered life-long friendships. It’s also helped me to connect and relate to others in a way nothing else has.

Mike Henry, the original organizer and m.c. of the Austin Poetry Slam, often compared that slam to church, and it wasn’t a bad analogy. 

We laughed together. We cried together. We hugged each other. And we put money in a bucket we passed around so we could do it again every week. 

Test Swan, the new book of poetry from writer J. Ian Bush – who currently publishes under his initials, J.I.B. – makes me feel like I’m back in poetry church for the first time in a long time. That’s only partly because, like any good Appalachian boy, religious imagery and allegory make up a good chunk of J.I.B.’s work. At times it’s intentional and overt, at others more subliminal and subtle. But it’s there.

It’s a language most of us will recognize, and it allows Bush to explore the timeless themes of growing up and losing one’s innocence, that others have touched on before him, in a way that’s accessible and familiar. What J.I.B. adds to that body of work, though, is the perspective of an Appalachian Millennial/Gen Z. 

He came of age in a world of perpetual war, at ground zero of the opioid epidemic that would eventually sweep the nation. That sense of disillusionment, with the motions of normalcy in a world that is anything but, comes through in a lot of his work. But that isn’t to say his work is without beauty, or that Bush doesn’t seek out the bright spots in a world of dirty windows. On the contrary, though he pulls no punches, in the midst of the melee he focuses on little things – dreams of building sandcastles with his daughter, memories of friends and family and small moments of innocence before life taught him cynicism – that serve as tiny beacons of hope in a world where he still refuses to pretend everything is okay for proprieties sake. 

It’s a heady mix, and like a hellfire and brimstone sermon it doesn’t necessarily leaving you feeling good about yourself or the world, but if acknowledging the messes we’ve made helps us clean them up, then Test Swan is a good sermon. 

Test Swan is also a good example of the difference between the poem on the page versus the poem as spoken word. I’ve heard some of J.I.B.’s work before at open mics, but seeing it on the page gives it a different impact. For someone who has spent so much time with performance poets over the years, it was a joy to go back to the page with this work, and see how punctuation, formatting, and white space can help a poem breathe. The art by Gavin McGuire also serves as a nice bridging element between themes and poems, something you just don’t get with an open mic reading. 

The book is available directly from the author, through his Facebook page, or at your favorite online book retailer. This book does contain adult content and language, and may not be suitable for younger readers.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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