In today’s day and age, it’s hard to become a well-known poet, let alone a respected one. I somehow found someone who is both. Jason Armstrong Beck, the artistic polymath behind Tumblr sensation The Journal of Bison Jack, spoke to me about his work, his efforts as a photographer, and his ultimate pivot towards the world of poetry.
“I had always scribbled, even as a child, and will most likely scribble my way to the end.”
Beck, who has over a quarter million followers on Tumblr, has dabbled and thrived in a number of different art forms, but it’s his poetry that has best resonated with this generation. His photography, like his poetry, blend nostalgia with hints of eerie decay, but they always draw you in. Whether it be puzzle pieces strewn on the floor or a garbage bin holding a “missing” poster, many of his images could be taken in the average American home. But Beck manages to create a palpable tension, almost out of thin air.
“I began writing The Journal of Bison Jack in 2008, by way of a promise I had made years before, and the need to make sense of my life.” Written on hundreds of different postcards, receipts, magazine ads, the poems range from the elegant to the visceral. Some of his most lyrical pieces of verse almost hide between the backing text. Other times, words seem to jump off the page in a fit of rage, like the word “MONSTER” heading the poem of the same name.
The Journal of Bison Jack is also a play of surfaces. “Monster” is about the creative process but also about the self, and (intended or not) the poem is written over a file from the Department of the Interior. “I have been collecting ephemera for some time. In some instances I use it to contextualize a poem, and other times I use it purely as an erased surface.”
One of his latest works, “elements”, is written on the back of a ticket stub. Others, like Diamonds, on a postcard so old that you can barely read the background lettering. But Bison Jack is an elusive character, a combination of Norman Rockwell and Marcel Duchamp that seems to roam the American wilderness. Beck attributes the majority of his findings to “estate sales, friends, and pure luck”.
But as Beck explained, the sense of mystery is deliberate. “For me, history is the surface upon which the present exists,” he said. “I am very interested in history and how it connects to the present. However, I am not trying to consciously add a layer to the poem. It is more of a device.”
One of Beck’s biggest inspirations is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, who lived in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wrote short, meditative poetry. Beck cites Rilke’s poem, Widening Circles, as one of the key inspirations for his poetic identity. “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?
“I am just a guy trying to put words to my experience. That’s why it’s called The Journal of Bison Jack. The visual nature of the work, is less equal parts visual art and literature, and more equal parts curiosity and my own frailty.”
But the findings have paid off. Beck is now one of the most admired active poets on Tumblr, and has since committed to presenting his work in a public art exhibit in Savannah, Georgia. The SeeSAW (Savannah Art Walls) hosted some of his best work upon the walls of an old store, and they even cleared out the interior to project some of the work on the back wall.
“I have written and rewritten that poem so many times, and as I get older I am sure
I will rewrite it a few times more. I read somewhere that poems are closest, in form, to song
lyrics. Personally, I believe that poetry is closest, in form, to water.”
Beck was asked by artist, Matt Hebermehl—who is known in Savannah for his massive street art projects— if he wanted to collaborate. “For some strange reason I agreed,” he said, “and I am thankful that I did.” Now, they are in talks to create installations in various other cities around the country.
Beck, who has enjoyed a long career with stints at galleries in London and New York City, has significantly altered his artistic path in the past few years, but it seems like his efforts are paying off. When I asked him if he had any advice for young writers, he said:
“It’s about not quitting. In many ways, I believe that diligence is the real art, and if you keep at it—one day you will be free.”
Check out his latest work on http://thejournalofbisonjack.tumblr.com/.