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Dead-poet society
Janaka Stucky always seems to find a way to get next to death

Janaka Stucky has a quote inked on his upper-right pectoral. Printed in a classic typewriter font, the tattoo is a two-line stanza from the Paul Celan poem "Nocturnally Pouting":



Ambling among the moss-encrusted gravestones at Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery, Stucky admits that if he’d died a year ago, he would have wanted those lines to be his epitaph. "To me, [the quote] embodies the parallels between the perpetual death of language and the perpetual death of the body," explains Stucky. "Death and language are two very prominent things in my life."

Stucky, 27, knows more about corpses than their use as metaphor. As a part-time undertaker, he has preserved them, met their beloved, rebuilt their bloodless faces into waxen doppelgängers of their former selves. He’s extracted expired grandparents from nursing-home cradles and collected teeny fetuses from hospital morgues. He’s tagged the ankles of human vessels that have surrendered to cruel viruses, zipped them up in plastic bags, and carried them off, away, gone.

Stucky has also tried to immortalize the dead. In addition to sidelining in the burial business, the Somerville resident writes poetry: he co-founded the Guerilla Poets, a now-defunct band of DIY versifiers who crisscrossed the country dive-bombing public places with in-your-face readings. He’s one-fourth of the macabre striptease troupe, Black Cat Burlesque, in which he plays the perpetually dead victim J. Cannibal. He also runs Black Ocean, a nascent small-press and event-coordinating collective that published a 50-plus-page excerpt of Hic Jacet (Latin for "Here lies"), Stucky’s in-progress memoir about his experiences in the funeral business. Through these various projects he’s tried to commemorate the dead, both reverentially and comedically, in hopes that he can — maybe, hopefully — help people fear death less.

Which could be why Stucky says if he died now, he’d choose DEVELOPING THE PERFECTION OF EFFORT as his last words: he’s grown more enthralled with the process of living than with its unavoidable termination. As Stucky directs the way to a carved wooden monument honoring the poet e.e. cummings, it’s mentioned that when Stucky dies, the permanent citation on his chest will become a kind of dead man’s whisper to his buriers. A word — you know: a corpse.

"I wasn’t thinking about that when I got it," Stucky insists. "It amuses me now to think of myself as a corpse with that tattoo on it. If I got embalmed, the incision would be made right above the tattoo — which would be pretty awesome. Sort of an ‘Abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here-type thing?’ " Better yet: don’t be afraid.

Sometimes I think

I could build an ant

Or, some other insect…

I mean, how hard could it be?

— "Transubstantiation," Anatomical Plates


Janaka Stucky is the sort of guy people brag about knowing. After all, he sounds like an exotic, epic character: poet, undertaker, horror-burlesque king, small-press publisher, show promoter, fake-blood engineer. As such, his friends often call him "large" and he is, both in stature and character: 6’3" with slicked-back dark hair, mossy sideburns that stripe his cheeks, and an unassuming smile, he has a bearishly warm quality. He speaks with such a soft, gentle calm that it’s difficult to imagine him worried.

The only child of two Hindu converts, Stucky grew up in an ashram, amid stacks of religious literature and photo shrines of his parents’ guru. The name on his birth certificate is Jonathan; when he was eight months old, his parents’ guru suggested they christen him Janaka, after an Indian king renowned for his bravery. "It’s nice to have a name to aspire to," Stucky says humbly.

In high school and college, Stucky was a punk. In his junior year at Emerson, he set up a punk-rock squat in East Cambridge called the Rice House. "It degenerated into this really awful, broken-down violent place that was mostly populated by Pit rats from Harvard Square, runaway teenagers, and drug addicts," Stucky says. Living with dudes named Dan Roach, Steve Vicious, and Queef wasn’t conducive to academic pursuit: Stucky’s desk was a used toilet he’d rescued from the gutter. "I’d set up my laptop on this toilet and sit cross-legged in front of it." That year, he spent a lot of time holed up in his girlfriend’s dorm room.

The year after the Rice House, Stucky distanced himself from the junkies, drunks, and gutter punks and threw himself into literature. He’d always considered himself a writer, but had not "realized what it took to be a writer." So in his senior year, he had the idea of reading poetry in "radical spaces" like street corners, subways, malls, restrooms. He recruited eight or nine other poet dilettantes he’d known through classes and they formed something they christened the Guerilla Poets. Every Sunday, they’d congregate on street corners for a couple hours, drawing clumps of curious strangers, and infiltrate supermarkets, fast-food chains, and department stores until management inevitably kicked them out. Once, they ambushed a Borders bookstore and "one of the Guerilla Poets got on the intercom and started reading a poem," recalls Stucky. "It took them a while to find out where he was."

Then things really took off. The Guerilla Poets descended on the People’s Poetry Gathering in New York City, where Stucky won a head-to-head haiku competition, beating reigning champion and professional Vermont poet Mark Awodey. Awodey, also the poetry editor at W.P.C.-Minimal Press, was so impressed that he offered to publish a compilation of the group’s pieces. In 2001, Speak These Words: A Guerilla Poets anthology came out, with Stucky credited as editor. Sardined into a van, the group toured the nation three times, at one point racking up 30 shows in 20 days and selling more than 900 copies of the collection — remarkable in the evaporating poetry market. "They’re kind of legendary among the spoken-word set," affirms San Francisco–based poet/writer Daphne Gottlieb. "The spoken word has its own icons and I think they were absolutely in that pantheon."

But after three years of road shows, the Guerilla Poets weren’t feeling it anymore. Their final show was in August 2002 at the Bowery Poetry Club. "It ended with me bleeding from many places and someone else smashing a guitar on stage, which I think is a pretty good way to end a poetry tour."

Most days I meet more new dead people

than living. I shake

hands with them;

sometimes clean their fingernails,

but first

I touch their ankles.

They seem

like babies to me, helpless, or just

not the right age.

— "Overcoming Undertaking"

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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