“Who I am is not really defined. Most of the questions you asked I’d probably answer differently two weeks from now,” said Raven Mack, smiling under his long beard. “I always reserve the right to change suddenly.”
Mack’s a poet without pretension, scribbling sonnets on his lunch break and supporting a wife, three children, and their home compound on “four dilapidated acres” in Fluvanna County.
“I grew up in the country,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m disgusted by society, but I’m not enchanted by it. I like to disappear.”
Working largely in metered forms, Mack writes about train yards and talking to birds and digitalization as domestication.
“I spent a lot of my life being self-destructive, so I try to turn it into writing you can stab people with—writing that’s real,” Mack explained. His work tends to pitch (or combine) philosophical challenges to contemporary ideology with everyman imagery and offbeat humor. To wit:
birds by yelling “What the fuck
is you?” doesn’t work
He’s self-published three books [under Workingman Books] and countless zines, including Football Metaphysics: World Cup 2014, Vehicular Tankacide, a volume of Japanese tanka poetry, and 1,000 Feathers, a series of pamphlets with titles like Primordial Traditionalist and Naked Polaroids.
Mack rejects the idea of ownership and intellectual property. “A lot of times people have a selfish notion of what creativity is,” he said. “My thinking is it should be a party for everybody. We don’t need to create the creative 1 percent.”
He promotes this artistic cross-pollination through Rojonekku Word Fighting Arts, the bimonthly haiku poetry slams he hosts in Richmond and Charlottesville.
Last month, the event—a single elimination tournament in which participants present traditional 5-7-5 syllable pieces or 17-syllables-or-less poems to three judges and the audience members—featured some off-the-cuff creativity.
“This sweet little soul from Richmond who wrote about plants made it to the final round with my bearded tattooed friend Benji,” Mack said. “During the battle, he read one about being broke or broken or something, and she actually stopped and wrote one on the spot about how he’d used poor grammar in his haiku. The room just erupted in laughter. She definitely had the highest moment of the night even if she didn’t win the battle.”
Mack hosted his first Rojonekku (a term that means “whatever someone wants it to mean,” he said) during his 40th birthday party. Borrowing elements from fringe poetry slams to create something he wished existed, Mack made every partygoer participate. The series has grown over time, morphing from a “drunk hipster type of crowd” into a “family friendly-ish” event with teenagers and adults.
“When I was younger I still had dreams of being a professional writer,” said Mack, who started making zines in high school. “I’m not as controlled by the notion of a career doing that now. I try to be not too serious about what I do, but it is kind of serious.”
As host and organizer, Mack considers himself less an owner of the event and more of a space keeper, a host that promotes a safe space for all and shares weird, funny stories that break the tension for newcomers. He’s making “uncomfortable people more comfortable.”
“I call it Word Fighting Arts because I wanted to take the notion of that world I was in, the cultural poisons that some of us are born into, and reframe it. Instead of destroying myself, I’d screw with the world,” he said. “But I try to make things fun and inspiring and keep it light. If you get too serious about anything, it kind of sucks.”
He grinned. “There’s a reason medicine is sugar coated.”
Rojonekku Word Fighting Arts hosts its Hand-to-Hand Haiku Tournaments in Charlottesville every second Thursday of the month. Join the competition on June 12 at BON Café.