After a career that lasted nearly 50 years, Alan Justiss’ tumultuous time as the unofficial poet laureate of Jacksonville ended on Valentine’s Day 2011. His friend, filmmaker and musician Troy Lukkarila, found him lifeless in bed, dead from the strain of maladies suffered during a lengthy physical decline — one that Justiss accelerated by having a lifestyle perhaps more famous than his actual work.
“To The Hawks Lend Your Heart: Reflections of Alan Justiss” opens at Karpeles Museum, where Justiss performed a decade ago. The exhibit was planned by Justiss acolytes Nestor Gil and Mark Creegan, who are both active in music, art and academia. Previously, they helped arrange the semi-permanent “Alan Justiss’ Office” display at UNF.
“For me, Alan was a model of the intensity of work it takes to be an artist,” Creegan said. “His dedication to his work and repetition of practice was what influenced me as a young person. To many, he also was such an encouraging supporter, interested in others’ ideas and growth. Ultimately, he was an intense advocate of so many.”
Justiss always joked about becoming famous after death, but he wasn’t kidding. His posthumous push began long before he died. In life, he avoided any fame external to his poetry, which he produced at a brutal pace, adhering to a minimalist style already anachronistic when he took it up. Justiss proudly espoused a brand of personal “discipline” that would have killed most people many times, many years ago, and he took nothing for granted.
His father was a psychiatrist who later shot himself, and the son worked hard to top that act: fistfights, overdoses, car wrecks, cancer, congestive heart failure, double pneumonia, emphysema, house fires, a hip broken in a mugging. All of that was washed down with enough alcohol to drown all of Congress, of which he would have approved. (And to think, the man almost became a paratrooper!) Throughout all the down times, drama and debauchery, his focus remained on the work — his, and that of the people he believed in.
The sum total of Justiss’ written output remains unclear, but it probably exceeds 100,000 pages — mostly poetry, but also short fiction, essays and journalism, not to mention correspondence, all typed single-spaced on ancient manual typewriters and filed chronologically back to the 1960s. He kept copious notes elucidating random thoughts and obsessions, ranging from art, music and film to war and politics, sex and drugs, history and the future. Friends, enemies and strangers alike will find their names scrawled on calendars, on which he documented his days; through them, one can see the past 20 years of his life, in microscopic detail.
Much like his public memorial last March at what is now Sun-Ray Cinema, this opening also functions as a reunion of sorts for the disparate circles that surrounded the man. Justiss was a mentor and confidante to many key artists, writers and musicians in this region. Several will be reciting their favorite Justiss pieces at the reception, while others are contributing recorded material, some of which will end up on a spoken-word tribute album produced by Mark Ari for EAT, a CD magazine begun at University of North Florida in 2007. (Anyone who wishes to contribute to this project can contact him at [email protected].)
“Much as I love the poems, it was the man that got to me first,” Ari said. “I started EAT Poems a few months ago, and it seemed right to pay tribute to Alan in this way, to have a few of his friends read his poems and to make a record of it. I guess you can say I’m paying a debt. Saying thanks. The poems are what we have of Alan. And when you hear them, he’s all there in them. That’s pretty terrific.”
Justiss received a lot of ink in Folio Weekly. He appeared on at least three covers and in multiple features, previews, reviews, letters by or about him, and even his obituary. This will be the second story on Justiss to run this year, and the fourth since his death. Excessive? Hardly. The Florida Times-Union has featured him several times as well, and when you Google “Alan Justiss,” about 61,400 results hit.
Alan Justiss’ role in the broader scope of cultural development in Northeast Florida is truly massive, yet remains quite difficult to explain. For me, he was just the guy who believed in my work when no one else did. “To The Hawks Lend Your Heart” puts the man, and his work, in a more proper historical context.