Johann Sebastian Baculum (JSB) is the self-declared Poet Laureate of Norman, Oklahoma and star of the podcast Talkulum with J.S. Baculum, an “OETA-rejected series” about himself and his poetry.
Mary Means (MM) How did you come to be the Poet Laureate of Norman, Oklahoma?
JSB Well, I’m a pretty forward thinking individual. I wasn’t just going to wait for them to figure it out. So I decided for them. And I don’t really feel like it’s something that just happens one day. I think I’ve always really known. You may be familiar with the work of Ray Bradbury and he very famously claimed that he remembered the moment of his own birth. And I have actually never had a problem remembering time even before that. So, basically from the moment of conception—I have memory from then until now—and even knowing that entire history of my life, I don’t feel like there was ever a time when I wasn’t destined to be the poet laureate of something. It’s more just a coincidence that I ended up being born in Norman.
MM What chain of events led you to actually declare yourself Poet Laureate of Norman Oklahoma?
JSB Going into a book store. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked in the poetry section of book stores anywhere, but, I mean, it’s just full of garbage. I think maybe it was my third or fourth journey to the local Barnes & Noble, going through the poetry section. I would just go through from A to Z just picking poetry books and flip them open to a random page and read a poem. Garbage every time. And I thought to myself, what poetry really needs is some fresh new voices who are saying real things that people are actually gonna care about. You get all this highfalutin crap from these guys. Yeats I have a personal bone to pick with, but you know, Whitman’s not much better. […] And they’re all guys. Do women write poetry? Do you know about this? Have you heard of anything like that?
MM I actually have heard of a few women poets.
JSB Yeah they’re not selling them in book stores in Oklahoma. I mean to be fair that’s a whole historical, sociological issue that I don’t even know that we should plumb the depths of. But, basically I was going through these book stores and they’re all full of crap. There isn’t a thing that you’d want to read in there poetry wise. So I felt like it was time to change the focus of poetry to relate more to common people and their concerns.
MM Was there any sort of formal event to coincide with you becoming poet laureate?
JSB Oh no. It was a very Norman event really. There’s an event they have down there once a year called the Norman Music Festival. It’s sort of a springtime thing. And I thought that was probably the perfect occasion. So normally they have a train that is the only train that stops in the train station in Norman that’s called the Heartland Flyer. It’s a two engine Amtrak that I’m pretty sure nobody rides. There was definitely nobody on it except for me and my goons. What we did was pulled into the station during Norman Music Festival. They have a stage that’s set up right at the end of it. Me and these guys bust the doors open off the train. They’re flying Oklahoma flags behind me, just kind of swirling them around, and I just went on the stage. I think they were doing a sound check. I mean if that was a performance it was pretty terrible. But I just picked up a microphone and said “I am Johann Sebastian Baculum, Poet Laureate of Norman, Oklahoma from this day forward. You’re welcome to try to depose me, you grimy bastards.” And then, me and these guys with the flags just got the hell out of there because security was getting pretty close. But yah, that was really the formal announcement.
MM How has the city of Norman responded to your declaration?
JSB Total and utter silence. I have heard nothing from anyone from the city. I do spend some time around the government buildings down there because I have a friend who allows me to receive faxes on the machine in his office.
MM What other poets of note have come from the city of Norman?
JSB [laughs] “What Norman poetry scene?” would be a better question. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Norman music scene, but as the Starlight Mints’ singer, maybe guitarist, once said when asked about the Norman music scene, “What music scene?” Now you might find this ironic because two members of the Starlight Mints actually own the Opolis, which is one of the few music venues in Norman. But just as there is no music scene in Norman, there’s also no poetry scene. I’m pretty much it. So love it or leave it, you’ve got what I’m throwing out there. Might as well get it from the best.
MM How has your work been influenced by living in Norman?
JSB You might ask just as easily how the algae influences the water boatman, a small insect that does something like rowing—I think maybe people somewhere call them skiff bugs—they kind of float on the top of the water, they spread their legs out really far, they sort of look like ores, kind of like a rowing team, but like how does algae affect them? It’s the same thing. I’m there. It’s a part of me. It’s barely even conscious anymore. All pervasive influence.
MM You no longer live in Norman. How has that affected your position as Poet Laureate of Norman, Oklahoma?
JSB Well I find that having a little bit of reflexive distance actually makes it a lot easier to write about Norman. You know, sometimes you don’t really see things the same when you’re looking at them from the inside as you do from the outside. And now I’ve really been in both places. I’ve wrote about Norman from the inside of it, and now I’ve written about it from a different part of Oklahoma that’s basically the same. So my perspective has totally changed.
MM How so?
JSB Well hmm, I use fewer semicolons. And uh fuck. [pause] Just punch something up about rhymes or something.
MM When did you start writing poetry?
JSB Well I don’t really like to think about it in terms of me writing poetry, because really poetry writes all of us. But if you want some sort of practical answer: I think really when I first learned how to form letters I was immediately writing poetry. You know the simple poetry of A-F-N-L. Just the letters themselves, if you have the right attitude, are really their own form of poetry. The sounds. The shapes. The things that they denote. It’s truly all poetry. I mean I’ve only gotten better as time’s gone on.
MM What kind of advice would you give your younger self?
JSB Don’t ever listen to or take seriously the opinion of anybody about anything you’ve ever done. Just do whatever you wanna do whenever you feel like it with very little consideration for other people. And I think really that’s it. Because I’ve spent a lot of time second guessing myself and it had a lot to do with, you know, I was always mystified at why people were so interested in consuming complete and utter garbage and so I kept trying to write to that low common denominator and, I just, I couldn’t do it. I was submitting things to magazines—anywhere from Poetry, which is the biggest poetry magazine in the world, to things like the New Plains Review, and I wasn’t getting responses anywhere. And I really think when I stopped censoring myself, and when I decided that I really didn’t give a shit about whether or not anybody was understanding what I was trying to do, and just declared myself a genius, then things really turned around for me.
MM Is that the same advice you’d give aspiring poets now?
JSB Well they can feel free to try it. I mean, I’m not making any promises, because a lot of talent is what people use to refer to as God-given. What-people-used-to-refer-to-as-God is all one thing. Like put all those words together with hyphens and then whatever that entity is- given talent.
MM Thank you for letting me interview you today. Do you have anything else you would like to share with our readers?
JSB Listen to my podcast. You can find it on Stitcher, which means that it’s somewhat legitimate. It’s called Talkulum with J.S. Baculum. It’s very educational. You’ll learn a lot about poetry, culture, […] writing exercises, and all kinds of practical advice. It’s worth your time.