Sunday, September 19, 2010

Musical Chairs by Jen Knox

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 184 pages
· Publisher: All Things That Matter Press, 2009
· Price: $16.99
· ISBN-10: 0984259422
· ISBN-13: 978-0984259427

Musical Chairs is the gritty memoir of a smart young woman, Jen Knox, who fell into the life of a stripper. This is not polished writing, but it is what it tells—stripped down to the bone and honest. The author has not tried to present herself in the best light or to make excuses. She looks in the mirror long and hard.

It may be that there is nothing very new here that we haven’t heard before. A girl grows up in a rather unorthodox family, deeply dysfunctional, ending with divorce. There is alcohol and there are drugs, and there is also a family history of mental illness. But young Jen is sharp, and she has a strong independent streak. In a fight with her father, still a teenager, she takes up his dare and walks out into the streets with no place to go. A junkie boyfriend takes her in with his father in the background, a porn fiend and alcoholic, who tries to rape Jen when the son is out of the house. What you have here is the perfect recipe for disaster. Indeed, that is what this scenario produces.

Knox stumbles onto an ad for a job—dancers wanted, no experience needed—and all seems too easy. Big money for almost nothing. All she has to do is move her body around on a stage in a sleazy night club and take her clothes off. If there is anything new in this story for which probably most readers already see the ending, it is that this is Knox’s story. As much as we are all unique individuals, we clearly hear the voice of the author throughout—and every story honestly told is worth telling. Indeed, at a time when the use of pornography in the United States is at an all-time high, it is a story that should be told, and heard, and understood, many times over—until it registers.

Knox describes her experience on the stage, never done sober, as none of the women who strip ever do their job sober. She describes the discomfort, the fear, the exploitation of both the women and the men, one of the other. She describes the lies told and accepted, the masks worn, the hidden agendas, the false fantasies. She describes the pimps, the rivalries between strippers, the crime, the escalating addictions. She describes her own alcoholism, encouraged by her boss as he pours hard liquor down her throat to get her to dance. It’s an ugly world and Knox puts it straight into the spotlight, unwrapping the truth from the center pole. On the stage, Knox looks down at the drooling faces and begins to understand her degree of control:

“Take it off, sexy lady!”

These words hit me like a slap to the face. I looked down into the man’s eyes, his eyes on my chest. I wondered why. I took my hand and followed his gaze with my fingers. I touched the buttons on my shirt; I undid them one at a time until my pretty black bra was exposed… I looked at him, realizing that I controlled his eyes now.”(Page 81)

As her career as a stripper progresses, Knox, already lying about her age, continues to feel more and more disconnected. She collects her cash and closes the door in her mind against what it took from her to earn it. In her personal life, the degree to which she allows herself to be abused seems to rise in unison with the abuse in her work, including brutal beatings, sometimes at the hands of other strippers.

“Each day, girls arrived at all times in the late afternoon, making their way, one by one, into the dressing room for our ritualistic transformation. Glitter and powder designed to lighten or color, conceal or contour, was shared and traded, becoming community property in our dressing room. We took such care to exhibit our faces; girls, women: our faces were the focus of that dressing room yet they only ever earned a passing glance from customers as our bodies shifted and twisted onstage.

“We knew that sexuality was expressed through the eyes and mouth, but our variety of salesmanship was less nuanced; our product was vulnerability, nakedness, false promise of sexual conquest. Yet, we spent hours in front of the mirrors smoking, doing lines, gossiping, speculating, all while constructing our masks with care and precision.” (Page 84)

In retrospect as a more mature woman, Jen Knox contemplates her reasoning, realizing there was little when she was so young and vulnerable. She cites curiosity and confusion. Not the low self-esteem or daddy issues or too much television, but a need to be seen. Her writing now, the author says, is a continuation of that need to be seen, heard, defined, even criticized, as long as she is not invisible.

“I felt empowered, and I got lost in the mystery of the dance: its freedom of movement and rhythm; its ability to maintain attention, to communicate to the audience. I expressed myself on stage and felt my femininity rise from a stifled place inside me. My dancing became almost a form of meditation. Until, that is, I looked down at the equally meditative glances from below. The audiences sickened me.” (Page 86)

The other strippers warn her that she, like them, will grow to hate men. Hatred and fear seem to be constant companions on the stage. The disconnect between the person and the actions becomes wider and wider. The disconnect between Knox from herself seems to widen as well. This is a world in which human beings can function only with compartmentalized hearts and minds.

To preserve the mask and keep the walls in place, Knox talks about the rules of that dark world. Strippers never date customers, never give out phone numbers, and when asked for their real names, apparently some use several, none of which are real. Many of the customers, Knox writes, have the ultimate male fantasy of making a stripper a “community service project,” saving the stripper from herself, making her into a girlfriend and getting her on track to a better life. To the strippers, Knox states, these misguided men are the “creepier, disillusioned type,” craving to become heroes.

When a boyfriend later tells Knox, upon learning about her past, that she is his “dream girl with a sultry, sexy side,” Knox responds:

“Stripping isn’t sexy, it’s a business. It’s dirty, gritty, capitalist exploitation.” (Page 152)

Eventually, Knox ends her career. Maturity is a factor, family rebonding, even if with dysfunctional members, rehab centers, treatment for increasing panic attacks that she experiences, all push her out of the business. While her life as a stripper takes center stage in this memoir, there are other storylines here that are also worthy of note. Courage in one area of her life opens up connections to other areas of her life.

Just as she increasingly shut down before, Knox gradually opens up again to herself and others. She eventually is able to establish a good relationship with a young man, whom she later marries, and she finds ways to cope with her family. One can’t help but admire that kind of courage. There may be no greater feat in life to accomplish than looking into a mirror without a mask on, and Knox finally does just this. She finds that courage when women try to exploit her just as men have, trying to make her into their personal good deed, a misconstrued altruism, infuriated when she has no wish to accept it. Knox is perfectly capable of being her own hero, to save herself. She reconciles with family, she goes to college and earns a degree. She is well on her way to developing herself as a writer, and indeed, by end of book, the writing has achieved a higher polish, as if in line with the stripper reentering the light.

Knox’s story is raw, and the writing, too, at times, is raw, but her talent to tell a story is evident. Today, Knox is an editor for a literary magazine and is working on a novel. Unsurprisingly, she is excellent at marketing herself, turning her early skills into positive ones. If her need is to be seen and acknowledged, may she be seen and acknowledged, for the story she is willing to tell is worth hearing.

~for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2010 (Watch for our Winter 2010-2011 Issue, out in December, for an interview with Jen Knox)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Marker & Parker, Jazz Poetry/Spoken Word by Marc Zegans with Don Parker on jazz piano

Review by Zinta Aistars
(From The Smoking Poet, Fall 2010 Issue)

Record Label: Tiny Mind, 2009
Price: $12.97

Let’s get that disclaimer out here right at the top: I don’t listen to too many spoken word CDs. Marc Zegans’ Marker & Parker is only the fifth such CD that I’ve been sent for review, so I consider myself a novice at tuning my ear to poetry coming out of my stereo system as I make my too-long daily commute to work down the interstate. Thing is, I don’t see that changing much. I adore the written word. I like my poetry on the page in front of me. I go to a great many poetry readings (which are worlds apart from going to slam poetry sessions), and at least in that venue I can say, with some expertise, painfully few poets can read their work well to an audience.

So there you have your scene set. Spoken word, or slam poetry, poetry on a stage, really isn’t my thing. It’s guzzling down something hard and fast that I prefer to sip and savor in solitude. And then there is this difference, too: when you see spoken word poetry written down on a page, it is nothing, but nothing, like poetry written to be seen on the page. I’ve listened to just enough spoken word that it is clear to me that it requires an entirely different approach to language. It is, after all, a performance. These are words meant for aural delivery. Not just words on a page here, but the poet him or herself, a physical presence, a voice, rich with inflection and tone and profound delivery.

I pop in Marc Zegans’ Marker & Parker and rev up my engine for the drive. Instantly, it works. Rack ‘Em. I hear a pool cue snap against a hard billiard ball, and Zegans’ voice snaps with it to bring me to attention. Jazz pianist Don Parker is playing in the background, at just the right level of enriching the reading, rather than overwhelming it. Okay, okay, I’m listening …

Shootin’ eight-ball at the I-beam
Wednesday nite tea-party.

Drag queen in a sheer silk dress
Gives me the eye.

Popper wiff hangin’ in the air.
I ignore him and break.

Smack, the cueball hits
The multichrome triangle

At the far end of the table.
Balls scatter.

He gives me the eye
Shows me some thigh.

Feel the mood? You may or may not. This, again, is not meant to be read, but heard. Imagine a deep, silky voice—one that, mind you, reminded me a little of a loosened-up Al Gore if we were to find him in a smoky pool hall. Zegans weaves his voice with the mood, making the mood happen, lets it bounce and sway with the jazzy blues, draws it out so that you feel that sheer silk dress swish across that bulky thigh. He purrs and slinks and pops and seduces.

Don Parker keeps tune in back. The master is always the musician who knows when to support, not to take center stage. It is improvised jazz, loose and easy, now and then nearly missing a note, but with a swift save and back again, nothing jarring. Unlike some of the other spoken poetry CDs I’ve heard, he knows his perfect place, and his style blends perfectly with Zegans’ style, one complementing the other. On Love that Waitress, Marc Zegans steps in himself with a jazz piano solo, to let us enjoy his dual talent.

By the end of my first listen to Marker & Parker, I was in that jazzy groove, and would rather have gone to some smoky lounge than my office. By the time I was driving home again, I was ready for a second listen. Which is saying something. One of my personal puzzles over spoken word CDs is wondering how many times might one want to listen to the same poems being read/spoken again and again. Some half dozen times later, I seem to be approaching an answer.

By now, my smile is ready as I ease into another listen. By now, I have asked Zegans to provide me the written lyrics, too, and to my pleased surprise, they work well on the written page, too.


High above the plunging hill, Jay sits
facing empty glass, his room spare
a music stand, a chair, a sigh, a sax
a silence, and curling sheets of noted


And by now, I can hear Zegans’ voice in my head as I read, the two becoming inseparable, word and voice. It turns out "Sunken Contents" may even be better on the page, as it is a shape poem, moving out like a wave and then sinking back again … yet Zegans accomplishes the same effect in reading it.

Sunken Contents

In the moment of fall
the slur, the cut, the jibe,
fast snapping, decapitating,
wind driven swing of the boom,
roll over—you dropping too fast,
too deep for them to touch, much
less bring you level. Proclaimed Mingus
you can't be brought low when you are beneath
the underdog, and falling fast from that subjugated
position, humiliation is an indulgent luxury, consumed
by those who imagine that loss of position carries meaning
to the death…

Zegans’ poetry is about the dark and seedy pool bar, yes, and the drag queen, but also moves into political themes, taking the “clown prince” to task (with allusions to philosopher Richard Rorty), with references to the Kennedys, delving into some 30 years of American political history. The author states it is his answer to “Howl,” with an encouragement to the listerner/reader to do more than just howl. There is also a sassy seduction of a waitress while mopping up gravy with slice after slice of white bread (“Mile High”), and a statement about the desensitized health care system that treats a human being like a body with its tickings recorded on a chart, rather than a man also of heart and mind (“Him”). Zegans even manages to make a statement about our over-processed food in “Too Fucked to Drink”: “…where health school lunch/is six french fries/and ketchup, not rotting,/is a vegetable.” In short, there isn't just mood here; there is also plenty of substance.

Another listen, and I have some walls and misperceptions about spoken word poetry broken down. It is indeed something that you can plug into your stereo more than once, each time gleaning something new and different. It can work, sometimes, on the written page just as well, or in addition. And there are voices, and performers, and pianists, such as this team of Zegans and Parker, who know how to work together to bring alive a performance that is a true pleasure to hear, to contemplate, to play again … just one more time.

To see this and many more reviews, visit Zinta Reviews on The Smoking Poet!