Keith Flynn Reaching New Heights with Holy Men, Kicks off weekend
by Rob Neufeld
“I would love to be a being of pure sound,” Keith Flynn wrote in his breakout 2007 book, “The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory: How to Make Your Poetry Swing.”
The Asheville poet, bandleader, and journal editor reveals the latest incarnation of his aspiration in a performance with his band, “Keith Flynn and the Holy Men,” at the Friday night kickoff for the Mountain Writers Workshop in Waynesville.
In 2007, Flynn toured 174 sites throughout America, spreading the word about “The Rhythm Method” and about his fourth volume of poetry, “The Golden Ratio.” In 2001, he had toured Europe to introduce “The Asheville Poetry Review,” now an internationally recognized journal, to 146 audiences.
APR’s founding in 1994 had helped coalesce the gathering of poetic forces in the city that has now resulted in a cultural attraction.
Flynn, Madison County native and Mars Hill College and UNCA alumnus, had burst into the 1980s with the now legendary rock band, Crystal Zoo. He was already finding ways to remove the line between poetry and song without compromising either.
“I was a lead singer in my mind when I was five years old,” Flynn related in an interview with the Citizen-Times. “I was baptized when I was eight years old, and most folks in my church thought that I was going to become a preacher there. When I went to college…on a basketball scholarship, after two years, I became a poet.”
Flynn has a genius for sound—not just tone, but also shape, movement, and instrumentation. Though there are themes to which he returns—for instance, the adoption of the feminine principle to counter ecological destruction—his main theme pertains to sound.
“I would love,” he continues in “The Rhythm Method,” “to take everything I hear and return it as poetry, to make an orchestra of a single man.”
The wish goes back at to at least 1991, when his first published book, “The Talking Drum,” presented the poem, “The Horses,” about horses racing a train. “I would,” Flynn wrote, “be infected with their reckless power…forever running, forever singing back,/ giving me the strength/ to walk as an equal among the horses.”
That visionary role is the poet’s, Flynn believes. And, in his view, everyone can lay claim it.
“What I try to do when I teach,” Flynn said, “is break a poem down into its smallest components, (which are) sounds. A poem is sonic architecture, like a song.” He then shows aspiring poets how to create “a long piece of angular momentum,” as he writes in “The Rhythm Method”—a “flow with authority.”
A song has aids to help it swing—instruments, backbeats, chord progressions, melody. “A poem has to have all those support systems, but they have to be invisible,” Flynn said. “The seams can’t show.”
Creating a visual metaphor, Flynn added, “You have to build your Frankenstein, but it has to be as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe so that the reader is seduced.”
Flynn will be leading a session titled, “Inspiration: How to Find It and Use It,” at the Mountain Writers Workshop, Saturday morning.
When Keith Flynn and the Holy Men (Bill Altman on guitar; Richard Foulk, percussion) perform Flynn’s poems, they manage to both swing and communicate in ways that make you think---yeah, this poem-song fusion can work.
Flynn’s poem, “The Men’s Movement,” published in his second volume, “The Book of Monsters,” is one of fifteen lined up for the Friday concert.
“I was thinking of Chicago and wind and Little Milton,” the poem begins, referring to the Mississippi bluesman, Milton Campbell, whose first hit had been “I’m a Lonely Man.”
When Flynn sings/recites his poem, the opening lines sound more like, “I was thinking of Chica-GO, and all the w-ih-ih-nd, and I was thinking about Little Milton, how he hated the i-cy g-u-u-sts.”
“Look at all the n’s in there,” Flynn remarked in the interview. “Thinking—wind—Milton. Both of the ‘and’s’ are used as connective tissue in that sentence to keep the nnnnnn sound in your mouth, which in my mind is mimicking the drone of the wind outside your window.”
The pattern of sounds opens your mind to allow more information in, Flynn explains.
“The Men’s Movement” poem provides another opportunity for Flynn. Written when he was twenty-nine, it was a reflection on leaving behind the recklessness of youth—“I don’t go too fast down this hill,” the song’s refrain goes—as well as on the men’s movement, which was developing at this time in connection with poet Robert Bly’s myth of “Iron John.”
Reworked in 2010, the poem’s lines become the words of a middle-aged man and an update on the men’s movement. Flynn has seen Bly turning into a guru, and the movement floundering in what he sees as ridiculousness.
“Why do men need a movement?” Flynn asks. “Men have been running things for all this time.”
Instead, the world needs to move past patriarchy. It’s another visionary path.
Along with “The Holy Men” performances, Flynn is exploring other new paths to get his message across. In his novel-in-progress, “The Ropewalker,” he taps Mexico and the Mayan civilization to create a one-legged circus performing hero.
The character evokes “The Horses” again, and the lines: “I thought, if I were to lose my arms & feet/ if walking slowly home I was seized/ and fell paralyzed to the ground. If wishes were horses…”
Passage through life can be that maiming. Poetry can be that powerful.
If you go
The Mountain Writers Workshop kicks off 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 24, at First United Methodist Church, 566 South Haywood Street, Waynesville with a concert by Keith Flynn and the Holy Men. Admission is $15. Saturday’s full slate includes workshops for writers in all forms and a luncheon keynoted by multi-award winning novelist Charles Price. Call 246-0999 about fees and registration. Visit www.mountainwritersnc.com.