ESSAY / KIM SWINK
PHOTOS / BRANDON MARKIN
I was supposed to meet Outlaw Poet Justin Booth for the first time in New York City. I was excited. After all, we had hundreds of mutual friends on social media, and I had been following him for some time. I’d bought all his books. And actually read them.
I was fascinated by Justin. Not just his poetry, but the gritty colorful life it conjured: tall tales of homelessness, heroin addiction, crime sprees so outlandish they seem surely embellished for marketing purposes; and his often uncomfortably unguarded bouts of mythological-level melancholy, splayed across the internet for public consumption.
I began to think Justin might make an interesting subject for a documentary and when I saw he would be in Manhattan for a reading on January 27, 2018, I sent a message asking if my husband and I could take him to dinner. After cautiously confirming that, yes, we did indeed know a lot of the same people, his enthusiastic response went something like, “Yeah, sure.” He’d be arriving by Greyhound bus from Austin and we could meet that night before Puma’s Pandemonium, a quarterly music/poetry event at Bowery Electric on the lower east side.
Frequently, and un-ironically, Justin Booth will proclaim, “I am the luckiest man,” despite much evidence to the contrary and a hard-lived past most of us can’t even imagine. “The best feeling in the world is being shot at and missed,” he explains, throwing his silver head back with a loud gravelly laugh that makes you laugh, too.
“Everything I ever learned about the hustle I learned from my father,” he says. Growing up a “PK” (preacher’s kid) outside Black Oak in the ’70s, the son of a High Elder and much-revered traveling pastor of The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Justin learned young how to spin a yarn for maximum effect. “They’re very clannish people, the Mormons, and my dad was a rock star to them.”
However, even as a child, Justin was certain that the things his father preached, and both his parents believed, were not true. He began to wonder what else they might be completely wrong about. For instance, maybe drugs and alcohol weren’t bad like he’d been told. Maybe crime does pay.
Having mastered the spoken word early, he first put pen to paper in ninth grade to impress the object of his affection: A student teacher who believed his claim that he’d already written hundreds of poems. He rushed home and, borrowing heavily from Jim Morrison and An American Prayer, as well as utilizing an assortment of writing utensils to simulate years of soul-searching creativity, produced a voluminous body of work to present the next day. “I don’t know, maybe everybody starts writing because they want to impress a pretty girl.”
By the time he stole a girl half his age out of “Christian rehab,” just two days after he first laid eyes on the 18 year old who became his third wife two weeks later, Justin had perfected the skills he learned watching his father mesmerize and manipulate an audience with words. Skills that served them well when he and his child-bride took off on a grifting tour of southern churches, touching the hearts of enthralled congregants with fabrications of how they’d turned their drug-addicted lives around for Christ. As soon as the plate was passed they’d take the generous donations straight to the nearest dealer. Part Bonnie & Clyde; part heroin-addled Paper Moon charlatans.The last time they saw each other was in the backseat of a cop car on the way to prison.
In the last year of his addiction, before his poetry had been translated into three languages, while still living on the sidewalk outside the downtown Little Rock Salvation Army, Justin assembled some of his best poems into a stapled chapbook at Kinko’s. He was selling them on the street corner for five dollars when a serendipitous encounter helped change the course of his life.
“I’d sell four books and go get a bag, sell four and go get a bag.” On that rainy day he only needed to sell one more to score when a local writer/journalist crossed his path. David Koon bought a book and, flipping through it, stopped cold a block later. He caught up with Justin, who was impatient to exchange his twenty dollars for a small bag of heroin, and asked if he could share some of the poems in his Newspaper column. “Which paper?” was the surprisingly haughty response. As if it mattered.
Koon wrote several articles about a strange homeless poet in the Arkansas Times that year, which led to Live at the Back Room, a popular literary reading series at Vino’s; and Justin’s own growing sense that maybe he was more than his past. Maybe even a person with value and something to say.
Seven years and six published collections later, I was supposed to meet Outlaw Poet Justin Booth for the first time in New York City. Instead, we met three months later in Arkansas, through a metal gate at the Lonoke County Jail where he’d become quite the jailhouse celebrity by virtue of a big personality and constant receipt of fan mail from as far away as Ireland and Italy.
When I hadn’t heard back from Justin that January evening I figured he’d arrived to much fanfare from all his uber-cool East Village post-punk artist friends and, not yet aware I might immortalize his life on film, blown me off. A few days later, I discovered it wasn’t personal when Puma Pearl (of the Pandemonium) posted, “Has anyone heard from Justin Booth? He never made it to NYC.”
There were several days of frantic messages flying across Facebook from friends in Texas, Arkansas and New York before he was located, safe and sound, in custody of the Little Rock Correctional Facility.
He had not, as so many feared, fallen off the wagon and disappeared on a bender; or back-slid to his previous outlaw ways. The Outlaw Poet Justin Booth’s past life of crime and irresponsibility had simply caught up to him along a bus route notorious for heroin trafficking and frequented by undocumented immigrants. On a routine stop and search of his bus the agents ran his ID.
It seems that before meeting David Koon and before a heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery gave him a new lease on life (and the added motivation to get off the streets, off dope and make it as a writer), Justin had failed to appear before more than a few judges, stood up a fair number of parole officers and frequently bailed on bondsmen. After all, when you don’t expect to live through the week, or the night, what’s the point of showing up?
Nine months after his dramatic failure to appear at Bowery Electric, Justin Booth, with his parole officer’s permission, took the stage on the lower east side of Manhattan for the September 2018 Puma’s Pandemonium and regaled a cheering audience with poetic tales of a colorful life. The life of an Outlaw Poet.
That performance was immortalized on film for an upcoming documentary about his life; and this month his seventh collection, The Luckiest Man by Justin Booth, was published – a book of poems about that time, finally, in New York City. It was worth the wait.