The Hastings community is often lauded for both the quality and quantity of its collective creativity.  Many manifestations of this can be found writ large upon our streets and festival sites or within our bars, theatres and galleries. It is always a delight to me, however, when I am able to scratch at the Hastings underbelly or dig deep underground to unearth hidden literary sparklers.  The work of John D Robinson provides just such diamonds –in spades.

Robinson’s latest poetry collection An Outlaw In The Making discharges twenty-seven double-barrelled reports, each one shot from the hip. Fired up from my first review reading of it I felt minded to delve further into the Robinson cannon and found Looking Down Both Barrels, a 2017 chapbook shared with poetry compadre  Adrian Manning, and When You Hear The Bell There’s Nowhere to Hide, a 2016 perfect bound collection with an introduction by Brooklyn NYC poet and author John Grochalski. Both books (published by Holy & Intoxicated Publications) proved consistent with this later work, suggesting I’d hit upon a local poet of interest and worth.

Following in the tradition of DIY publication and distribution that came into its own during the nineteen-sixties ‘mimeo revolution’, Robinson cut his teeth with poems appearing in dozens of small-press and independent magazines, both in print and online, based throughout Europe and the USA. He is clearly influenced by the ‘Beat Poets’ and even more so by the so-called ‘Meat School’ of poetry, originating in California and characterised by the direct hard-hitting and honest writing of the late great Charles Bukowski, often referred to as ‘poet laureate of the down-and-out’.   

Common themes include all the usual suspects for this genre of poetry, so no need to list them here, just think sex and drugs and rock and roll.  Robinson’s poetry describes adventures in awkwardness or misfortune within an uneasy world, yet there are often elements of optimism, hints at secret joys and wonders to be found, as in ‘No Hang-Ups Here’:

‘what went wrong or
bad in life remains
and what was good
and beautiful in
life also remains,
there are no hang-ups
here,
no competition’

Much like Bukowski and others, Robinson writes of the pleasures and pains involved in the very act of creating poetry. In his poem on love and yearning ‘A Sob Story’ he flags up the age-old writers’ conflict where two selves struggle to engage with the world at the same time – the physical self with the outer, the muse-led self with the inner.

‘some nights our
conversations are slow
and intermittent as I’m
consumed by wine and
words in my head
but I can gaze across at
you and I can see your
lips part into a smile’

Anyone familiar with mental illness and some of its symptoms, whether experienced first-hand or through someone we know, will recognise similarities here with that sometimes delicate boundary between ‘artistic creativity’ and ‘madness’. Many writers, and practitioners of other creative disciplines, have expressed this all-consuming drive to create and I like the fact that Robinson too addresses this.  As Bukowski wrote in one of his later journals: ‘I can feel the words bubbling inside of me, getting ready…And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death.’*

I enjoyed An Outlaw In The Making, not simply because I like this style of writing but because much of the work is infused with original wit and surprises.  The poem that gives rise to the collection’s title, for instance, turns out to tell a story far removed from the one I was expecting – but I won’t spoil it for you.

There are many poets in Hastings & St Leonards, and its surrounds, who venture out into the local spoken word club nights and open mics to promote their work. John D Robinson isn’t one of them. So how refreshing it is to discover a writer whose words have been published around the globe for years without many of us literary locals knowing about it. But then again – that’s Hastings for you.

An Outlaw In The Making (Scars Publications) is available on Amazon

*The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship – Charles Bukowski journals

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