Thomas Peters, owner of Boulder’s Beat Book Shop and host of the 35 year running “So You’re a Poet” reading series, has released a new book this year titled 1985. Published by Kansas City small press Turnsol Editions, it’s a collection of memoirs organized by eight significant years in his life between 1969-2000, primarily focusing on the 80s when he was living in Hollywood and later moved to Boulder.
If you’ve ever attended Tom’s reading (830pm Mondays at Wesley Chapel, Boulder), you’ve heard him regale the audience between readers with stories from his life, the earlier days of the reading, and the Boulder poetry scene, often featuring first-hand accounts of Beat celebrities. This collection is in the same vein and is a departure from his previous more traditional poetry books, such as “100 Missed Train Stations” and “Certain Birds.” Tom mentions in the book the term “raconteur,” and I can’t think of a better word to describe him. Reading 1985 feels like the author is right there in the room with you telling skillful and amusing anecdotes from his fascinating and eclectic past.
Peters has always impressed me with his ability to recall such specific details from his past, and it’s these details that really make his memories vividly come to life for the reader. Days after reading the story, “Nineteen Sixty-Nine,” I’m still imagining the strange Belgian bar in Michigan that had pigeon races and “really good mustard.” Tom has a knack for transporting you to these past worlds that don’t really seem to exist anymore, with bygone things like hitchhiking, Hustler Magazines, LA punk shows, and Beat legends teaching at Naropa in the summer.
The writing style varies between simple, matter-of-fact testimony and breathless Kerouacian flourishes. It even includes one long narrative poem, “In Nineteen Eighty,” which takes syntactical liberties to match the frenetic nature of a story about a post-breakup weekend that includes a run-in with the law, and hitching a ride down to Mexico. The various styles seem to fit each piece, and it never feels forced or pretentious, more like an author urgently trying to express something significant from the past in whatever way it must come out.
On the surface the themes appear to be typically Beat – freedom, sex, drugs, the search for meaning in the cracks of society. But on closer look I think what’s tying these pieces together is a sort of personal investigation that tries to answer what has made Tom Tom. The first piece “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” is the only one set during Tom’s childhood and particularly focuses on his family/father’s relationship with alcohol. Perhaps a child being brought by his father to a variety of seedy bars (“The bar was the only place there wasn’t a mom or a grandma saying don’t spill that or a teacher saying get back in your chair”) paved the way for a future of feeling more at home in the shadowy underbelly of things. At least a couple pieces focus on a particularly impactful ex-lover – first the chaotic aftermath of their breakup in “In Nineteen Eighty” and later in “Nine Eighty-Five” the stunning reception of the news that she had been murdered, after which Tom was probably never quite the same.
However, the book doesn’t dwell only in this kind of emotional heaviness; quite a bit of it recounts the fun and adventurous side of life, meeting an interesting mix of subterranean oddballs and mainstream celebrities. (Somehow Tom has an uncanny ability for connecting with famous people, like actor Mickey Rourke, basketball legend Jerry West, or Beat poet Gregory Corso).
In the final story, “Two-Thousand,” the tragic and the thrilling almost symbolically intersect, when shortly after the death of his father, Tom goes to the Telluride Film Festival with renowned experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and ends up meeting young stars Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire. It shows a complex connection between what torments Tom and the rich and interesting life of adventure it leads him to, which, whether it makes up for the pain or not, is at least worth writing about.
This 64 page book, which can be read pretty easily all in one shot (tho I chose to read them one by one each morning at breakfast), was very enjoyable for me, not just because I know Tom personally, but it also satisfies my intense curiosity of the particular era (I was in diapers, for example, at the time he was in eerie proximity to the infamous Wonderland murders of 1981) and allows me to live vicariously thru someone who I envy for pursuing the Beat life a little more successfully than I’ve had the courage or drive to.
I can get pretty pessimistic about the place of this kind of writing (which includes my own) in modern times when the internet has seemed to have made our public memories so over-abundant and devalued. I worry maybe the world would’ve appreciated a work like this far more in the actual year 1985. Perhaps tho, a few of us today still prefer the smell of newsprint and the smoothness of paper in your hands as you engross yourself in the unique recollections of a master storyteller like Thomas Peters.
If interested here’s where you can order the book.
Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is the Editor-in-Chief of Boulder Poetry Tribe. You can find more of his work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com