Jeff Grosso, still from Speed Freaks, 1989

I always dug that title from the New Deal video, aptly taken from Jeff Grosso’s part in Speed Freaks where, laying on a sofa after shaving his eyebrows off says, “…the life of a professional skateboarder, lounge around all day, do absolutely nothing, until it’s time to ride your wooden toy.”

I believe that was 1989 and around then I was borrowing a camera to make my own skateboard videos. They were mainly weekend clips and I remember my favorite one was downtown footage with Midnight Star’s No Parking on the Dance Floor dubbed over it. Other videos included montages of friends skating my backyard ramp and small outtakes or “films” we’d make as a preface, interlude, or postscript to the actual act of skating. They were obvious throwbacks to the popular videos of the 80’s, Future Primitive, The Search for Animal Chin, and so forth.

I never learned how to edit well but I enjoyed providing my own soundtrack to whatever I was doing. Beyond listening to music, my soundtrack during that time was also visual. I carried a black magic marker on me and drew pictures, or scenes, on the bottom of my skateboard and on loose sheets of paper. They were invariably small drawings of two people, cut off at the waist, framed by a box drawn around them. On a single sheet of paper I could get two boxes across with three rows going down, and around each one I’d write whatever I thought was or wasn’t going on inside.

I soon got bored with drawing the same old characters. It was what they had to say outside of the box that became intriguing. I started to look forward to writing around the boxes more than drawing the scenes inside of them. Like my editing skills, my line drawings of people were also limited. Writing, however, was entirely open and I enjoyed how it surprised me because I never thought about it.

After writing took over I stuck strictly to using the bottom of my skateboard rather than sheets of paper. The narrow piece of wood provided the perfect canvas for composition. My new page was eight inches wide and between the wheels it was fourteen inches long. Whatever narrative was written before soon changed to a list of one-liners and nonsequitur arrangements of passing thoughts. I wasn’t aware of it, but this was my first entrance into writing poems. The lovely thing about it was that I got to write a new piece every night. After a full day of skating anything written on the bottom of my board would be completely scratched off.

It wasn’t until I encountered my first poet, William Carlos Williams, that I realized I’d secretly been writing poems for a decade. Before then, I was oblivious to any inclination that the medium had even found me. His line enjambment and sparse matter-of fact-speech seemed overtly familiar. Not only that, but the form of his poems mirrored the slender arrangement of words that my narrow board had been dictating. In other words, as Duncan would say, he was my “place of first permission.”

It’s been two decades since those first narrative box drawings. Given the time that’s passed, I can’t help but think of the similarities I’ve found between the worlds of skateboarding and poetry. I realize this sounds completely outré. The initial thing that comes to mind is a shared attention with inanimate objects but for now I’d rather scratch the surface by listing some of the more tangible parallels shared.

Both poets and skateboarders live in and through their imagination and have the total freedom to do such and through this, they both create. It’s how they document what’s created out of this freedom that makes them homogeneous. As a poet, you document your experiences by writing a poem and you share that poem by publishing it in magazines; as a skateboarder, an individual trick that you land is documented through photography and it is likewise shared in magazines. Whether it is a poem or a trick, both are still shots that capture and represent the discharge of energy that the person behind it created.

After months and oftentimes years of gathering poems (printed or not) one starts to arrange and assemble them into a book. Equivalent to that is collecting video footage from a skateboarder. It can take months of recording tricks to years before an individual can assemble enough footage to create a video part. Both full-length collections of poems and full-length video parts are documents of an ongoing manifestation of creative output by a single person. The only difference is the medium used for documentation.

In putting together a book-length manuscript, I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how each poem flows (or doesn’t) into the next. Without considering the content, does the form of each poem connect with the ones before or after it? How do they feel on the eyes as one flips back and forth through the book? Does this even matter or contribute to the experience as a whole? Is there enough range, and what about the emotive counterparts of the content? Are these poems so similar that they need to live next to one another or should they be pages (years) apart? Do I need a longer serial poem near the end to switch things up with a few shorter poems around it to lessen the density? Better yet, what album should I listen to while I reread the whole thing to make sure everything works?

Similar questions tend to surface when putting a video part together. How long should the part be? Does there need to be a huge range of trick selection? Which ones, how many, and where? What variety of tricks down stairs, handrails, or gaps, should be included? Is it okay to have skate park footage or better to stick with the streets and empty backyard pools? Should the whole part be a quick collage of single tricks, edited one after the other, or would it be better to include a series of long, unedited lines so as to pace the presentation? Should day and night footage be separate or mixed together? What music, if any, goes best with the part and holds it together?

I feel like I’m just getting started. As much as I want to continue the similarities, I enjoy that they beg me not to. In terms of process, it already seems so blasé not to mention the many other mediums that share familiar comparisons, especially in film, music, and the visual arts. That aside, the one thing that seems to stick, in terms of being a poet or a skateboarder, is the communication and identification with inanimate objects. Without taking the risk of writing a mini-essay on skateboarding and projective verse, or field composition, I’ll bow out while I still can. One thing’s for certain, that with poetry and skating one is constantly living out the imagination by making it an active reality.

Broken toys

Originally Published: April 30th, 2013

Poet Micah Ballard was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and earned an MA and MFA from the New College of California. He studied with poet Joanne Kyger and has written about John Wieners; the influence of the San Francisco Renaissance poets can be seen in his work. He has published...