Jones talks Texana, patronage v. freedom of expression, and the emotional power of concert posters

"My fear is government patronage flattens the curve on free expression, unconsciously forcing a herd immunity to truly radical or controversial ideas."

Special to Lone Star Literary Life 


Dustin Pickering: Ken, your latest endeavor, The Way Life Goes, is a collection of song lyrics and fliers from punk shows during your time in the Austin music scene. Do you find that literature influenced your lyrical output in any way? Or were the lyrics spontaneously produced?


Ken Jones: I began as a poet and attended UT to pursue an English/creative writing degree. During the time when our band Peace Corps first started, I was in grad school earning my MA in the same subject. Many of the lyrics in the book emerged from what was probably my juvenilia. I’d written all my life—songs, poems, some plays produced in junior high and high school. But as every creative person knows, process is unique to each artist. I can say that some lyrics make explicit literary allusions, whereas others were inspired by personal experiences, real-life events, or my philosophical views on a variety of subjects. Each lyric has its own story—I ought to reread the book as it is now and write an addendum, like Eliot did to “The Waste Land.”


After being involved in the Texas literary scene for so long, and hanging in Los Angeles and Florida, do you find that Texas has its own style of literature, its own approach to the arts?


Yes. Texas is like its own country, and I am a proud native Texan. The entire genre of Texana takes our history and environment as muse. Recently I was reading with a friend who didn’t know about Texana, and when someone hopped on stage to read about dance hall culture, I leaned over to her and said, “That is Texana.” Of course, everyone thinks of J. Frank Dobie and the great Wild West-inflected short stories of Larry McMurtry and his fantastic novels grounded in our special state. When I lived in Houston, I was fortunate to count Larry Thomas, a former Texas poet laureate, as a personal friend. We often read together and if I were to direct anyone to a quintessentially Texas poet, I would recommend him—Where Skulls Speak Wind and many other examples of his fine work.


I did live In LA for ten years and published in many little magazines there. Obviously, it’s a much more urban sensibility. Everyone there wants to be Bukowski, though as a New Formalist, I wasn’t really a huge fan. I like his short stories better than his poetry. I only lived a few months in Miami and NYC, so I don’t feel I know those scenes well, though I did feature at Cornelia Street Bar in Greenwich Village and also snagged the artist drink discount all summer after reading at the Bowery Street Poetry Club. And I read to a large crowd on the street at Espanola Way from the balcony of the Edge Theatre in Miami Beach. Jim Tommaney was an excellent playwright and the uncle of my girlfriend at the time, Susie, whom I am lucky enough have as my graphic designer on most of my books and remain friends with to this day. 


What is your opinion of government sponsoring the arts and patronage in general?


I’m skeptical of patronage. It’s a long-honored literary tradition from Roman to Royal to modern times. I personally lean libertarian politically, so free speech to me is the paramount value of our society. My fear is government patronage flattens the curve on free expression, unconsciously forcing a herd immunity to truly radical or controversial ideas. Yet the alternative most working writers have is to teach, and academia obviously enforces conformity to climb the tenure ladder or even obtain the professor gig in the first place. To quote Billie Holliday, “God bless the child that’s got its own.” 


What prompted you to collect these pieces of memorabilia into one book? Was there ever an intention to do so some day?


No. We had released many of the songs on cassettes locally and on an indie album that got national and international distribution and reviews. When I moved to LA, I put all these memorabilia into a Rubbermaid container to store at my mom’s house. Many years later I was featuring at the Austin History Center for Peggy Lynch, and during intermission I walked the halls of the building. They had an exhibition called “The Poster Art of 80s Austin.” The walls were covered with framed flyers with names of so many bands I knew and gigged with—I was shocked. They had to hunt me down to finish the reading, as I was lost in memories. At that point, I realized that maybe what we did back then had passed into some form of history. So I spent time assembling the material. I found enough for two books. Maybe we can do a sequel someday.


What plans do you have to promote the book? How will promoting this book be different from promoting a collection of poetry?


With the current pandemic, all live events are obviously on hold. Generally when I publish a new book, I schedule a series of readings in Houston, Austin, and elsewhere to promote it. I hope when our lives stabilize into some normalcy, I will do readings, even some music gigs. Right before the lockdown, I videotaped and recorded some of the songs in solo piano versions with my current music producer, Spyder Angelo at Sound Street Studios in H-town. And people can go to SoundCloud, type in “PoetKen,” and find a few songs in their original versions. Mitch Ginsburg, one of the guitarists on the cover of the book, even joked about “getting the band back together,” like the Blues Brothers, but realistically, I’m mostly a page poet now and, when I make music nowadays, it is either solo piano or produced by Spyder. But I’m old enough to know that no one can predict The Way Life Goes.


PoetKen Jones is a longtime fixture in the Texas poetry scene, publishing nine books, hosting a long-running reading series at Borders River Oaks, serving on the board of multiple poetry organizations, featuring at numerous poetry festivals and individual readings, and teaching college level English and creative writing courses for twenty years. He is also a prolific songwriter and playwright. For more info, visit his website at  


Dustin Pickering is founder of Transcendent Zero Press and founding editor of Harbinger Asylum, an arts and poetry journal based in Houston, Texas. He placed as finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal's short story contest in 2018, was a feature for Public Poetry in 2013, and has several published poetry collections. He is also published widely in India by Hawakal Publishers and Chitrangi Publishers, as well as the Sahitya Akademi. He was a contributor to Huffington Post and has articles published by Cafe Dissensus, Borderless Journal, Countercurrents, and others.