A cursory glance at the website of Jonesboro, Ark.-;a town of Baptist churches and the Able Termite & Pest Control company-;well, let's be polite and say that the town is an unlikely starting point for Clint Catalyst, spoken-word performer, and author of the book Cottonmouth Kisses. "Remember the Columbine shooting," said Catalyst over the phone from Los Angeles, "Well the year before there was a sixth-grade shooting in my home town."
So Jonesboro is not entirely out of synch with what's happening in the rest of America. In fact, it's bang up-to-date; kids get shot there, zapped like termites and pests.
And it's usually the "strange kid" that does the shooting. There's always a kid at school that's strange, the kid who got washed up on the beach of "The Island of Misfit Toys," the kid from Venus, the wacko kid who lives with his frothing chemicals in the garage.
Clint Catalyst could have been a killer.
"People have their coming-out stories," said Catalyst, "Which is interesting, because there was never a question of me being in. From a very young age I always knew and everyone around me always knew; while the other boys had their shitkicker boots and wanted to do the rodeos and all that small-town stuff, I was the kid in the sandbox with my crayons.
"But I'm glad that I was born there, because it's such a place of extremes, and I was really isolated there at a young age. Other kids might have an imaginary friend, but for me I had an entire realm. My parents lived out in the woods, so I would go out into the woods, and I would play with these characters I had created. I think that's why I started writing, because I began to capture them on the page.
"As I got older, I put a personals ad in Star Hits magazine. There's a section in there called RSVP. I started to get all this mail from people around the world. It was exotic and exciting, and then the letter writing turned into something that I took more seriously."
Catalyst briefly escaped Arkansas by getting a scholarship to study in Germany for a year. A year when his locomotive brain de-railed, "I had a great time," he said. "But because I had been in this small town for so long, with the same dusty gravel road, the same names and faces, going to a new country, a new language, meeting new people, and getting away from my parents who are conservative Southern Baptists, I went crazy.
"So in Europe I got into a lot of trouble. I was supposed to be studying, but because they trusted the students, they gave us a large lump sum of money and I took that money and traveled for several months instead of going to classes. I really needed to be in an environment that wasn't so tempting for me, so I went back to Arkansas."
Catalyst attended Hendrix College in Conway, where he received a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in English. While there he started a 'zine called As If-;which was a stunningly produced Dante's Inferno of a publication appealing to those dark souls among us who feed upon Christian babies!
"I started doing As If just because there wasn't anything like it where I lived," explained Catalyst. "I would go to Little Rock, which is Arkansas' attempt at a city, and I would look on the magazine stand for anything that interested me. I could never find anything, so I started my own. The first two issues of As If were done on the college photocopier. I did nude modeling for the other college in Conway, and through the money from that and the sales of the second issue, I managed to get the third issue professionally printed."
But Catalyst was miserable in Arkansas and set out for San Francisco on his graduation day. "I literally walked across the stage, got the diploma, and there was a U-Haul parked across the street that had all my belongings in it. I didn't even wait till the end of the ceremony. My parents knew, all my friends knew. I wanted to get the fuck out of there immediately.
"I'd seen so many friends of mine turn leaving into a 'tomorrow' scenario, 'I'm going to move, I'm going to do it next month, I've got to save some money.' Next month turns into the end of the summer, then next year, and the majority of the people I knew are still there.
"I'd never been [ to San Francisco ] and with the exception of this guy who lived in Berkeley, I didn't know anyone there. ... The first night we went out to a club called House of Usher and I immediately started meeting people and getting into the life there."
After being accepted into graduate school at the University of San Francisco, Catalyst started his Masters program. "I stopped doing the magazine, because it went from being a labor of love to something that was all-consuming. In San Francisco there were a lot more bands and people to interview, and it wasn't like doing it in a small town at night after classes."
It was also around this time that Catalyst developed a nasty drug habit. "That in itself was a full-time job," said Catalyst. "I can't think of anything that's more of a full-time job than being a drug addict."
Then Catalyst met Tina Root of Switchblade Symphony ( Buy The Three Calamities CD, Cleopatra, 1999, then work back through their catalog ) . "I met her shortly after my arrival in San Francisco," continues Catalyst. "I liked Switchblade because they were doing something really different, and Tina saw me perform spoken-word a few times. They asked me to open for their band at a really big show; so I went from doing spoken word at a venue for maybe 30 people, to a show at the Trocadera in front of 1,200."
"Then a few other bands asked me to open for them, and if it was a gig where there were two bands, I would perform between the bands, that way there wouldn't be so much dead time while they changed equipment. ... I don't like to call it poetry, because a lot of people are allergic to the word poetry, so I prefer 'spoken word.' The pieces I perform are really dramatic readings. There's one character I do that's a junkie stripper, and that's entirely based on people I was hanging out with at the time."
In late '97-'99, there was an influx of what Catalyst calls, "Silicon Valley Dot-Com Millionaires" moving into San Francisco, forcing up rents and pushing out the artist community. And so, Catalyst again hired a U-Haul and this time moved to Los Angeles, where he still lives today.
Which brings us to the remarkable Cottonmouth Kisses, a book that, to my mind at least, is reminiscent of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of An English Opium Eater—a true "only the devil cares" Gothic tale. Catalyst has taken the tortured romance of 18th century writers, and strangled it even further with the poison ivy of today's death culture; you know, those dark-shadow kids you see on the street after midnight with eyes made up like sunken graves. Catalyst has been there, done that, but ... and this is what makes an artist an artist ... instead of buying the T-shirt, he wrote Cottonmouth Kisses.
"Some of the book is spoken-word text from a chap book I did," he said. "And then the stories, particularly the last three stories in the book, I started working on in my sobriety. There's a story in there called 'Metaphor and Remorse,' which was the darkest part of my addiction in San Francisco. I decided to do something constructive with those experiences, so I started to put a manuscript together and the first publisher I sent it to picked it up. That was Manic D Press.
"I had a few months to add the last piece in, which is an epistolary piece in the form of a letter, which is what I'm really interested in working on now. Like I said earlier, when I was back in high school I would write letters to pen pals. But I didn't really view them as real people. I suppose it's similar to the way a lot of people use the web; they go into chatrooms and meet these different personalities, people under an alias ... single white female, 23, blond with blue eyes ... and they create these people they become on the web.
"Since I did that a lot through pen pals, I did the same thing with the final story. I wrote it in the form of a letter to an ex-boyfriend, and it's a letter that I knew I was never going to mail.... And that's when I really decided to come to Chicago. The boyfriend I wrote that letter to, when he and I were messed up on speed, we got all the psychosis, the textbook paranoid schizophrenic behavior. ... It was during that period that I was in Chicago for two days in the process of meeting up with him in Minneapolis. I was in the AMTRAK station, too paranoid to leave. I just kept walking around with this huge suitcase, so I didn't see any of the city at all.
"So this time I'm coming to Chicago do other things than rearranging everything in the same locker."
See Clint Catalyst in Chicago Aug. 7 7 at Twilight Tales, The Red Lion Pub, 2246 N. Lincoln Ave. ( 773-348-2695 ) at 8 p.m., $2; and Aug. 9 at Quimby's, 1854 W. North Ave. ( 773-342-0910 ) @ 6:30 p.m. Free.