Grace Notes: Remembering Jack McCarthy

by Ryler Dustin

The first time I saw Jack McCarthy, I was in line at Stuart’s Coffee House, then a haven for Bellingham artists, bohemians, students, loners and poets. At the time, I didn’t know what the word “poet” meant. I didn’t know much of anything. I knew I needed to write for some reason beyond my control, but I didn’t know what to write, or why, or even how to begin.

All I knew with certainty was that I needed a cup of coffee.

That’s when Jack took the stage. I had stumbled into some kind of open mic, and the audience—mostly 20-somethings like myself—hollered at the aging man’s approach. I suspected an amazing feat of prestidigitation, or a musical performance, but the man had no instrument. Perhaps he would sing?

I could not have been more surprised when he opened his mouth. He was speaking—not singing, not even orating, but speaking, the way one speaks to a longtime friend. And the audience couldn’t take their eyes off him.

I guzzled my coffee and leaned closer. He was talking about addiction.

I stopped drinking only when it
hurt too much to drink. I stopped
smoking when it interfered with
jogging. I stopped jogging
when the pain in my hips

tarted waking me up at night
for ice-cream—which had to go when
my cholesterol reached escape velocity.

I realized suddenly why my peers were so rapt. We were the generation of sound bites, weaned on MTV, inundated by eight-second commercials. Over-stimulation was our bread and butter. But this soft-spoken, lanky man at the microphone had tapped into something profound: our need to hear honest speech.

Sitting at Stuart’s months later, after I’d begun to read and write and listen to and practically live on poetry, I noticed Jack’s table was littered with note cards, each filled with observations about the poems read that night. I noticed my own name among them. He had been taking notes on us, I realized—on every single poet.

Jack was one of the most successful and beloved slam poets in the history of the medium. His seminal book, Grace Notes, his full-page poetry spread in the Boston Sunday Globe, and his legendary appearance in the breakthrough documentary Slam Nation would have been enough to give any poet an ego trip. But Jack’s sincerity seldom wavered—he listened when anyone spoke, and when they shared their poetry, and somehow seemed to speak directly to each of us when he performed.

It’s tempting to go on about the loss the poetry community has suffered since Jack passed away in January, 2013. It’s tempting to bewail the stunning inadequacy of words. But I can hear Jack’s voice in my head: Stick to concrete images, Ryler! Don’t get weepy! Remember to make them laugh before you make them cry!

So instead I will say that, shortly before he passed, Jack requested I bring him bacon-topped donuts. As I brought them, I thought about that first poem, the one about addiction, in which he gleefully describes giving a personification of bad health “a run for his money.” And I thought about the way that poem ends:

And maybe that’s how it
was suppose to be: arcade of
substances that seem to ease
the pain, but all you’re playing
is Whack-a-Mole, you bash it
here, it pops up there—
til suddenly you stumble on

the substance of your destiny
and understand at last
that all the pain
you ever gave the slip
was the pain of not doing this.

Jack’s absence in the lives he touched will never ease up. But, as Jack would say, life isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s only supposed to be worth it.

After Jack said goodbye to my friends, and me, he invited us to raid his bookshelf. I found the first poetry I ever published—a staple-bound, homemade chapbook. Inside were Jack’s copious notes, grammatical corrections, even somewhat unscrupulous criticisms and poem ratings. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Jack wrote so well and touched so many lives because he understood how to value the words of others, to give them his full attention. He taught us that writing well isn’t about how much you say—it’s about how well you listen.

We are going to miss his words, but his quality of attention is what we can’t find by opening his books or playing his albums. The sound of his pen on cardstock—the real writer’s secret, the writer who can listen—is among the most profound poems I’ll carry with me. Those were Jack’s grace notes.