Propelled by punk yet inspired by the Beats, Zack Kopp is no stranger to Denver’s underground spoken-word scene, having participated as a host and performer throughout the ’90s. He’s gone on to write and publish his own works in more recent years, including a local-history tome on Beat icon Neal Cassady’s Denver roots. Learn more about Kopp’s years haunting the city’s coffeehouses and bookstores — and where he’s headed next — by reading his answers to the 100CC questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Zack Kopp: Lots of people have influenced me creatively. Jack Kerouac’s notion of writers novelizing their own circumstances with just as much interest and drama as any masterpiece keeps me going. I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood during a chicken-pox fever dream at age seventeen, then misplaced the paperback and imagined I’d dreamed the whole thing. It was so fantastical — Hazel Motes and the Church Without Christ, Enoch Emory praying to the stolen mummy (super-cool, crazy stuff) — and I never realized the truth until years later, when I found the book in Austin. The time between trained me to be always chasing unknown masterpieces in my own brain. And the great Charles Bukowski pointed the way to his own model, John Fante, from whom I learned the lesson of hospitality — that readers should feel welcomed and hosted and addressed rather than heartlessly narrated to. Not saying I’ve cracked it completely, that lesson, but I’m always shooting for it now. I guess my muse would be the inductive principle requiring action. I’ve started looking at the moon and asking it to show me what I’m capable of.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Mark Bliesener invited me to read at the Neal Cassady Birthday Bash on February 9 at the Mercury Cafe, which might be a great opportunity for ex-Merry Pranksters Paul Krassner (currently working on a book about a modern Lenny Bruce type) and Ken Babbs (currently busy at a novel called Cronies, retelling his Prankster years) to stop in. That would be an interesting conversation to have. Gonna be a lot of people there. The David Amram Quintet. Neal’s daughter, Jami. I’ll have some books for sale at that event, too: The Denver Beat Scene, an overview of Denver’s connections to the Beat generation, through Neal Cassady being most relevant topically, as well as copies of my recent fictions Public Hair and Overgrown. I may or may not be accompanied in my reading by Becca Mhalek (The Terminals, Jane Doe, others) on sax. If she’s available, that would make it the third appearance of our words and music duo, the Tomato Tasters.
There’s a place at Seventh and Kalamath called Denver Open Media that’s ripe for creative types with little money to produce and broadcast shows on public-access cable. I went there to promote my Beats book a couple of years ago and was impressed by the number of creative types actively promoting interesting projects. I was just about to sign up and learn to use DOM’s equipment and hire it for a talk show on local creatives when I got laid off unexpectedly from my day job as a market-research interviewer. Still planning to do it eventually. Only dark side I see is that a very small minority of venues in the creative community seem less welcoming than others, which may or may not have something to do with the corporate influx lately. But things change.
What drew you to the underground literary world in the first place?
I never fit in as a kid and felt there must be some hidden purpose to my otherness. Read this book about the Beatles, causing me to expect I’d be discovered as a special creative genius by eighteen, but it didn’t happen. When I was nineteen, someone suggested, “Hey, if you like writing, why don’t you go read your stuff at Muddy’s?” After the first visit, I changed my name to “Henry Alarmclock” and made it my mission to shake up the staid old Beat-centric Denver poetry scene, as I saw it then, deliberately identifying with the underdog, taking an isolationist stance that was drilled into me by years of never fitting in. The poetry scene was a place for working out personal struggles like that in public. In the ’90s, there were all these independently owned coffeehouses all over Capitol Hill — all you had to do was propose a spoken-word reading, and the owners would usually agree, and a crowd would accumulate. It was a reckless, irresponsible ten years full of fun and pain and love and regret when I look back on it, and I’m still grateful for the welcome of that underground so long ago. At one point, I was hosting five readings a week. It finally ended when I smashed a TV with an ax while wearing an alien robe at an event called Bleeding TVs of Angels on New Year’s Eve 2001. The underground was the easy way into the world of being a writer for me. Now I’m making it my ladder to the next level.
It seems there’s a trend toward humorlessness, per Donald Trump. You can’t say lighthearted things about this character without people using it as an opportunity to stake some personal political claim. Which is understandable, but I think that’s a bad sign, like we’re losing our ability to look past the obvious. There’s every reason to oppose an expression of bigotry, smallness, sexism, racism — all those things. I suggest we do it in a way that’s of benefit to our emotional bodies, if possible — and especially so if our ability to feel that way is challenged. I’m only here in defense of people loving themselves and each other for as long as possible, and hopefully, we’ll always be able.
What are you defending, mate? Cosmic Midnight Night Shifters, forthcoming from Big Table Publishing in 2018, is told from the point of view of a subject determined to avoid consensus opinion in every question and follow his gut instead. When Donald Trump wins the election, freelance writer Howard Plumber decides to do the opposite of what is distasteful to him about the whole mess, rather than joining any established camps of resistance or support — with terrifying and hilarious results, you may be sure. Stay tuned.
My favorite published work of fiction is called Public Hair — several improvised shorts full of hundreds of characters in the same small town, woven into a novel that's at once completely imaginary and also the most personal statement I’ve made as a writer. I really felt like I’d discovered something there. Started calling it “subconscious fiction” since it felt so automatic. In response to which, author Heather Fowler (Beautiful Ape Girl Baby and more) pointed out that all fiction was subconscious. She’s right, of course. But see what you think!
You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?
My goal since 2008 has been to find a way to pay for my life with my creativity. I’m still working on that. In the last few years, I’ve worked as Neal Cassady’s son’s agent and edited three books for Alan R. Graham, who lives in Coronado, California. He was Jim Morrison’s sister’s husband for upwards of twenty years, knew all the Beatles pre-fame and went on to work as an agent-provocateur for porn king-slash-free speech champion Larry Flynt during his run for the presidency. Those connections have given me an intimate role in bygone countercultural history, without translating to money or fame. I’m proud to have edited and ghost-written parts of the only Morrison biography so far published by a family insider, but Al never got an ISBN number, so maybe it’s just a nice feeling. That’s enough.
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Channel 12’s Heather Dalton graciously forwarded an invitation from the History Press (now Arcadia Publishing) in 2015 to write that book on Denver and the Beats — who I thought I’d outgrown — and I recognized their undeniably foundational nature to everything I’d gone on to as a writer: Kerouac’s Enormous Novel of his Life, Gregory Corso’s circus-sized humor, John Clellon Holmes’s vivid shots of some of them as Columbia students — all that stuff had a huge impact on me. I felt lucky to be here in Denver, where Neal Cassady learned to chase girls and shoot pool and steal cars. Where William S. Burroughs Jr. had his liver transplant, convalescing in an apartment-home on Colorado Boulevard, where the Trader Joe’s parking lot is now. Where Lenny Chernila lived and died. After writing that book, I made friends with Neal’s latest-discovered offspring, Arvada’s Robert Hyatt, who recounted his efforts to track down his biological parents via a bureaucratic process formerly tangled and only recently straightened out, and helped him find a publisher for his memoir, Beat Bastard. Bob, who’s also an extremely gifted visual artist, tells me he's been accepted to show work in a juried show running January through April 2018 at the Foothills Art Center in Golden.
I met photographer Mark Sink, Ed White’s stepson, who introduced me to Ed himself, without whom there would be no Boettcher Conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens or Molly Brown House Museum. Denver poetry scene elder and storyteller Edwin Forrest Ward provided invaluable data on lesser-known second-wave Denver Beats now deceased, like Jimmy Ryan Morris and Tony Scibella. My own scene has its fallen heroes, like Don Becker and Phillip Lee Duncan. Rising rates have me wanting to relocate to Albuquerque, where I know the grid and rents are affordable, or somewhere else I’ve never been, to refresh the browser entirely. I was laid off from my day job unexpectedly at the beginning of November, and my severance check is almost gone. But things change: I saw a post on Facebook this morning headlined, “Investors Promise $24 Million to Keep Denver Neighborhoods Affordable Statewide.” Maybe things will get better.
Jonny Barber’s newly opened Colfax Museum is a real achievement in local history. And he’s talked about running for mayor. I’ve been especially impressed with everyone in Denver’s creative community who’s stayed active in the wake of personal tragedies; if you recognize yourself in that, it’s you I mean. And I’m impressed by all those spurred to greater heights of kindness by the general discombobulation, when so many feel attacked and influenced to join up more tightly with their personal packs against everyone else’s packs and clubs and gangs, when it’s so much easier to speak with anger and behave unkindly.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Learning how to animate. That’s the closest thing to replication of imagination I can think of, a trade with room for all my artistic vices — writing, music, joking — and the active commercial value writing had some decades bygone. I’d like to learn the tricks. And I’m about to try standup comedy.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
I’d like to see more recognition for all the coffeehouses and bookstore owners holding space for creatives despite all the profit-driven gentrification of the last few years. Places like the Mercury Cafe, Mutiny Information Cafe, Syntax Physic Opera, Kilgore Books, the Corner Beet, BookBar and others are strong examples of Denver’s indestructible creative spirit.
See Zack Kopp read at the ninth annual Neal Cassady Birthday Bash, at 8 p.m. Friday, February 9; David Amram will also perform that evening with his quartet. Keep up with Zack Kopp and his work on his blog page. and find Kopp’s books online at Amazon.