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Encore: A poet's intensity, a poet's short life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2013 - Ken Brown scared me a little bit.

That was an impression based on exactly one interaction, when the man read a series of short poems at the Firecracker Press on Nov. 19, 2011. The moment was interestingly intense, one of those experiences of taking in art that burns an impression in your mind, one that lasts for a good, long while.

Brown’s reading was part of a series in which a pair of poets would read their words in the upstairs space of Cherokee’s Firecracker Press, back where all the real work takes place. As the poets would read, Firecracker owner Eric Woods, sometimes along with an associate, would fire up the old presses, printing out broadsheets based on snippets of the poems being read. The combination of voices and machinery was an intriguing one; and I was impressed by the good idea during the couple of times I came by for these literary Saturday afternoons.


When Ken Brown read that day, he did so with his frequent running buddy Brett Underwood. Their work made sense appearing on the same bill, sympathetic souls in their tone and approach, both in their poems and the performance of same.

But Brown, on this afternoon, brought a little extra vinegar.

In watching a YouTube video of Brown’s last piece that day, impressions come quickly: the room’s relatively quiet, save for the hums and pops of Woods’ machinery; he’s seen on the side of the screen, looking slightly bemused as he cranks broadsides. The audience is sitting near, though just out of frame. The number of congregants was relatively small, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or 25, if memory serves. Brown, stationed behind a big, wooden work table, dominated the room as he read, occasionally sounding as if he were engaged in some light sparring with the audience. From my own seat, almost directly in front of Brown, I wanted to laugh frequently at some of his exquisitely tart lines, but the vibe of the space somehow kept those choked down, or quieter than necessary.

As he wound up for his last piece, Brown was in high style.

“I’ll do one more,” Brown says to the camera manned by Underwood, who agrees to the idea. “I’m getting tired of this. (Pause.) I hope you guys are enjoying the show. (Another pause.) You guys write it!” And then, out came tumbling the final piece.

The afternoon made me want to write something up for Brown, in what was shaping up as the web series Half Order Fried Rice. My part for Brown was probably not all that inspired, in terms of casting: maybe he’d be a street preacher, or a street poet, or a street hustler. He had to be on the street, though, and he had to be riffing from his own words. There was no point writing material for someone like this, better to just let them take it from their own perspective and own voice.

But Ken Brown scared me a little bit. So I didn’t ask. There won’t be another chance, as Brown passed away last week at age 50.

Video's importance

Some years ago, I caught one of my favorite authors, Douglas Coupland, in a reading at the Central West End’s landmark Left Bank Books. He eventually sauntered up from the basement, clutching a bottle of wine and a shopping bag filled with boxes of off-brand cookies, Nilla Wafers. He did some type of trivia game; I won a box of Nilla Wafers, getting it autographed after Coupland’s reading and Q/A. It was a quirky, shambling reading, the veteran author segueing from a line from the book to observations about the room, the audience, his career, his stay at a Downtown hotel and his resultant walks over “the lid” of I-70.

Had the reading taken place last night, or last week, or in November of 2011, I might have taken pictures, or rolled some video. I didn’t have the capabilities and probably felt that those things would be upsetting to Coupland, somehow. I can remember plenty about his visit, but the details are starting to slide. There’s no visual record to refer back to, no quick cross-checking available. In a day-and-age in which the average 16 year old’s birthday party has 100 times more documentation that the Kennedy assassination, our hunger and expectation for the visual is ever-increasing.

So, it’s worthwhile to reflect on those moments that still surprise. Seeing Ken Brown’s wild, sorta-rollicking reading is a treat, especially in light of his passing. It really captures the man in his element.

Woods, seen throughout the clip, gave the background for the night: “Brett Underwood set up the reading through Jill Bieker, who was working for us and booking all the readings for the series. I didn't know Ken but had heard that he and Brett were working on odd projects together. That was enough for me. The day was a surprise. I thought Ken was somebody else, meaning I had expected another of Brett's friends to show up. When we were introduced I was confused and that set the tone for the reading for me.”

As for his own support role in the piece, Woods says “I don't mind seeing myself on video though our goal with the poetry reading series was always to be part of the background. I never imagined I was being watched much, but more heard, as the noise of the printing press could create rhythm or interruption depending on the reader. I could sometimes slow down the pace or be gentler with the printing process. In the end the press would repeat the same sounds no matter if the reader was soft or loud.

“I'd bet every poet that read for our series had never read while a printing press churned next to them and that surprise fueled the attitude of each reading. Ken wasn't shy and I felt like he was challenging me sometimes. Not knowing one another, I wasn't sure what he might do. It must have been entertaining! We still talk about the Ken Brown reading, amongst the studio and friends, today.” 

Friends, together

To put together some thoughts on Brown’s passing, to bring some context to a man who lived an outsized life, well beyond the reach of a small batch of video clips, I contacted Underwood. He told me when friends were meeting at the South City tavern Sandrina’s, and I headed down on a Monday, a day when he’d routinely hold court at the bar for a few hours after getting off of work. Bartender Dan Swinford, a veteran of the space and keeper of a high-quality, onsite library, was found behind the bar.

Tom Flood, a friend of Brown’s, said that Swinford’s “the librarian for the Monday Book Club”; he also set up a small shrine to Brown, which featured a Bob Dylan book, some photographs and a bottle of Mark Twain whiskey, from which patrons were welcome to pour.

Asked if Mark Twain was Brown’s brand of choice, Flood said “‘gimme a brown drink,’ he’d say. He’d have them on the rocks and he was very picky about his cubes. He liked around 17, I think. But there’d be seasonal adjustments. He never did shots, ever.” 

On Monday, Flood mentioned that “details (were) still trickling in,” regarding Brown’s passing. He was 50 and was known to enjoy a sip, so much so that “he called in sick last Monday. You know that you’re a barfly when you call in sick to a shift” and aren’t on the clock, Flood said.

As Flood and I spoke, a few more friends drifted from the bar to a nearby table. Among them, Paul Casey, Jim McGowin and Joe Sulier, who’s capable of an inspired vocal impersonation of Brown. Flood mentioned that he’d hoped that “friends who’d known him a lot longer would be here. They can go way back with him, to his time in Australia and Morocco.”

Of memories, Sulier said “a lot of it is blurry, but all of it is there. Every story is good. There’s not a story about Ken that is in any way dull or common. Every time you talked to him was an event. You’d have to be in a certain mental place to answer a Ken Brown phone call. He could be super-wasted and berating you, screaming at you over the phone, or you could get the super-pleasant version, with him making you sing. But it was always an hour. When you just wanted to call him back, make it a quick call, you couldn’t do that.” 

On the flipside, “he was cyber-sober,” McGowin says. “No computer, no cell phone, no anything.”

At times, one person would start a story or offer a line, others jumping in and finishing the anecdote. There was his time in Australia “where he was asked to leave the country.” And then his day in Morocco, where “he lived with a one-legged prostitute.” Though there wasn’t a lot of documentation of those experiences, nobody doubted the veracity of the stories. “Ken Brown wasn’t able to tell a lie, he just wouldn’t have made up those stories.” 

“He was such a big personality,” Flood said. “We’re thinking of how we’ll fill that space. He loved to debate. He’d bring up a word and we’d talk about its meaning. All that kind of stuff, we’ll miss. He’d come in here with guns a’blazin’ sometimes.” 

As for the Ken Brown seen in the Firecracker video, McGowin remembers picking him up that day, the poet initially leaving his work at home. That “wasn’t an act. He had this whole schtick of jousting with the audience. My favorite thing in seeing him enough was that his poems would be smeared. He’d write them, then drop something on them. He’d look at them and say, ‘I can’t even read this one.’ The best was when he wrote a poem on the back of a Geico bill. He wrote them on anything. And sometimes he’d lose his packet of poems in the bar and we’d all have to look for it. His delivery was that he didn’t really have it together, that he’d randomly pull work out of this manila folder. But that was half-act, he really hammed it up.

“And he’d always leave an audience wanting,” McGowin said. “You’d think that he’d have time for another three or four poems, but he’d just stop. He always left them wanting for more.”