Starving the Vulture with Jason Carney
Will My Insurance Pay for Rehab?
Starving the Vulture with Jason Carney
The ﬁrst time I saw Jason Carney was on the semiﬁnals stage at the Chopin Theatre during the National Poetry Slam in Chicago. It was 1999 and poetry slam was still new. But Carney performed like a pro. I remember standing in the balcony, tears streaming down my face, as he took a bow.
Since then, this dynamic Southern poet has been a four-time National Poetry Slam ﬁnalist, appeared on three seasons of HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and has toured colleges and universities throughout the U.S.
He has now published a memoir, Starve The Vulture, from Akashic books. Carney was at Da Poetry Lounge in Hollywood to promote this book last Tuesday. After the show, I bought a copy and began to read.
I had my doubts. Was he just another slam poet-turned-wanna-be-literati? But once again, I was blown away. The book has already been optioned and will soon be made into a major motion picture.
Inspired, I sat down with him before he left town to ﬁnd out more.
Poetry Slam gave you a great outlet and a great platform. What motivated you to write in a longer form?
I was going to graduate school and I had to have a project. I’ve made my living from poetry for 15 years. But I think my poems are more prose poems anyway. With that three-minute timeframe, you become very adept at telling the story. Slam teaches you to really delve into ethos, pathos, and logos, and to really get into it. You’ve got such a limited window to really be effective. And I think that background and having that training helped me to move forward with this prose. There are not a lot of wasted words, especially when you look at flashback scenes. Most of the scenes are really short. And really that’s my homage to slam poetry. I think it enabled me to also be able to write without judgment of myself or the other people in the book.
I feel like when it comes to poetry we can hide a bit in the metaphor of poems. I’ve known you for nearly 20 years but I learned things about you that I didn’t know when I started the book. As you go out on the road and share this book with the world are you getting some interesting reactions?
I think the book itself is really harsh. There’s not a whole lot of beauty in it. The writing I tried to make as beautiful as possible. So even when I’m writing about these horrible dark things I wanted to do it in a way that was beautiful. Because if you haven’t had trauma in your life and you tried to read this, it might be off-putting. But I think the way that it’s written compels the reader. I think that keeps the reader from blinking and shutting their eyes at certain parts.
I did have one reviewer who said, “I just didn’t want to root for this guy because he’s a dick,” and I get that you know?
I noticed at the slam a lot of people thanking you and buying the book, have you had anybody come up to you and share their own story with you?
When I go speak at schools or juvenile detention centers I get people who can relate to it. And I want people to be able to relate to my experience. I think there are a lot of men in this world who have been through a lot of the things I’ve been through who don’t have the courage to speak up about some of those things. I’m willing to do that. And I’m willing to do that because when I was 18 years old writing saved my life. How could I do anything but this? If this is going to save my life I can’t hide from myself. For good, or for bad, better or worse.
Sometimes people are put off because of some of the things that I’ve done. But I put my money where my mouth is. I’m an anti-hate activist. I go speak on these things and I tell about my shortcomings and how they can be overcome. I think if I’d been somebody who did these things and hadn’t done anything to right those wrongs and tried to write this book, it would have come from a different place than what it does. But I think everybody has a story, and nobody’s story is any greater or less than anybody else’s. One thing I have found true is that when I’m in a school and I’m teaching the quickest way to get students to open up to me is to open up about myself. If I don’t hide from them. They don’t hide from me.
Absolutely. Do you think it’s changed your recovery, writing the book?
I struggled with getting clean and sober for years—I mean years—when I had that last time, it’s almost like it was removed from me. The first few weeks were hard but there was a resolve in me that had never been there before. I’m not a member of NA or AA. I bounced in-and-out of those rooms for years. Maybe I absorbed enough of that—I was in these Big Book groups that would just beat the crap out of you with the book—I can, to this day, sit down and quote memorized passages of this book. I think it’s one of the most powerful tools you can find. And a lot of the inventory I do on myself, I really kind of modeled off of the Step Four inventory. But I don’t go to a program like that. I do work a spiritual program of recovery. I’ve developed a spiritual relationship with God that’s inside me. And for me, writing has always been that connection to that spirituality, that higher power.
What makes this book stand apart from other recovery memoirs like Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl or Lit by Mary Karr or Dry by Augusten Burroughs?
I think my book talks about more than just overcoming addiction. It’s framed with this story of addiction. But really when I talk about starving the vulture, it’s about starving the racism that I was raised with, starving the domestic violence and the sexual abuse that I suffered, starving the hatred.
It also talks about not just surviving being a victim, but about surviving being an abuser. Because I, like so many who have been abused, became an abuser.
There’s a chapter in the book about my first job where I was babysitting … and I lost my head one day and a violent thing occurred and I mean I was 11 years old. To be 11 and to realize you are your father already… I lived with a lot of shame. And that’s a hard thing to look at yourself and forgive. And it’s hard to lay out there and hope others forgive you. But I think my book speaks to the power of people to change. There are a lot of white people who were raised with the violence and the racism I was raised with. I don’t know too many other white people who are saying what I’m saying in this book about white culture. About how we teach racism and hate in our country through laughter and love.
I think there’s a lot of love in this book for your own family and for your own culture without turning away from the wrong that it does…
My Mamaw and Papaw—that was my one saving grace, that example of healthy love. They were very prevalent, and even though there are those limitations that I talk about, I can recognize the good and bad of my ancestors. And I think sometimes in this country, I think we have a problem doing that, we want to idolize people instead of looking at them honestly for who they are. And if I take them off the pedestal they’re flawed, but if I don’t learn from the bad things and the mistakes I’m doomed to repeat them, right?
I think you have a good point about speaking to the work it takes to overcome being a perpetrator as much as the work it takes to overcome being a victim. Service is a big part of that, and community, and creating that kind of change in the world. And it sounds to me like part of the way you’re doing that in your community is though your non-profit so I’d love to hear more about that.
Young DFW Writers is in our first year. We were given the franchise for Louder Than A Bomb, which is a youth high school poetry program and festival which, in Chicago, culminates with the largest youth poetry slam festival in the world. I wanted to take that and bring it back to where I’m from. Dallas Fort Worth is an incredibly segregated city. It’s very important to us and our organization as we go to breakdown the barrier of segregation within Dallas County.
Click to hear Jason Carney’s Ted X talk, “What America Needs Is An Honest Conversation” which includes some of his poetry as well as lecture.
To see dates for his US book tour see www.akashicbooks.com
EXCERPT FROM Starve The Vulture, a memoir by Jason Carney.
-used by permission from Akashic books.
He bends at the waist and picks up the girl. His determined footsteps, each an assertion of anger, conjures my father. He stomps toward the stairs. His foot comes down on the ﬂotation ring, the seams bubble under the pressure, ﬁssures erupt along the body of the adhesive. The detonation reverberates off the walls as the seams explode. The little girl and I bust with emotion as the halves separate from what was whole. My life changes forever.
“Cocksucker!” he screams. “Clean this shit up!”
The red fume of his face matches the color of the tulips in the center of the dining room table. His feet tangle in the ﬂat ring, he knocks over a laundry basket. He stumbles. The clumsy way he pitches her on the couch as he falls causes her to roll off the cushion. Her head smacks the ﬂoor.
“See what you did, Jason? Pick this shit up! You are worthless!” His eyes glare like my father’s, full of venom and death. “I got to get back to work.”
The door slams heavy. The coatrack falls off a nail and gashes the wall. The little girl bawls. A red welt visible on her forehead, she crawls to the door, clutching after her father.
“Fuck you!” I scream, tears down my face.
My guttural roar scares the girl. She claws after the doorknob just out of reach She wants someone to hold her, ease her pain, and kiss her injured forehead, making the boo-boo better. My head swirls with rage, my reﬂection in the living room mirror reveals the anguish of a drowning boy. The edges of my vision blur to blackness. I tingle from head to toe, every nerve ending alive.
Who is she to feel hurt when I am the one they shit on?
“Shut up!” I scream.
“Dada. Dada. Dada!” She stretches on her tiptoes; snot and tears run down her belly.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" I yell.
“He isn’t coming back. Shut up!”
Our eyes connect; a hatred of everything small and fragile ﬂows through me. I slap the back of her head with my right hand. She cries louder, and her pleas touch a place of fear within her for the ﬁrst time. I recognize it in her eyes. My father showed me this anger that dwelled like a beast within my bowels. When its hideous mouth opened, I felt its infectious tongue, I found comfort within its embrace—a nightmarish life of powerless lust. I no longer fear that beast. I relish its comfort. I desire its power.