Nick Muska: The mind of a poet

. July 31, 2018.
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Nick Muska is a poet and a storyteller, but it ain’t that simple. Muska tells stories in print, publishing three collections of poems  (ELM: Warehouse Poems, Living My Nightlife Out Under the Sun and All Cool (Carefully Selected Poems) and featured in two anthologies of GLASS WILL: An Anthology of Toledo Poets.  Soul-baring words of work, love, sex, humanity and the human condition, Muska describes his style as ” simple. . . with a lot of guts.”  Poetic conversations ripe with plot lines, adventures and mysteries, they draw in readers, intrigued, to hanging on every word. He speaks in diagrams, starting one story which may share a common denominator with another incident in his life, which sends him off in another direction.

An artist, curious about life

Muska grew up in Lorain, Ohio, playing violin in the school orchestra, beginning in the third grade. “I was into music first. We competed in high school.  I could read the C clef, I had a lotta style but I didn’t have the sound – they put me on the end so I looked good. Then I picked up the bass fiddle and played polkas to make a buck, but fell in love with jazz. I was 15. The guy at the corner ‘groceria’ sold pints of cheap California tokay and muscatel. He’d been in the Navy and visited Howard  Rumsey’s Light House, a jazz club in San Diego. One time when I saw him, he loaned me an EP record and it was Chet Baker, and I wore that sucker white!”

It was an immediate bond for Muska. Though he’d heard jazz before (Dixieland), this new west coast, cool sound blew his mind. “I read ‘On the Road’, then ‘The Dharma Bums’, by Jack Kerouac, and along the way I got into poetry and the beatnik scene. I was fascinated with Kerouac, the idea that a kid from a mill town, became an artist! Not a mamby-pamby son-of-a-bitch, but a true artist, curious about life.”

“And I’ll give you the other ingredient,” he continues. “Few people know this: this is the book that made me a poet.” Holding up a brown, thickish thome, held together with Scotch-tape, The Best Loved Poems of the American People,’edited by Bennett Cerf, Muska explains,  “I got this book handed to me by my father, along with another book,  European poems translated into English. My Dad had a job in a shipyard, and they were dumping the entire Captain’s cabin library, and my father saved these two books for me!”

The book, not unlike the Chet Baker LP, made an immediate impression on Muska. His love of sports drew him to “Casey at the Bat,” but there were also stories that attracted a 13-year old boy, like “Vagabond House,” “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” and “The Ballad of Yukon Jake,” a tale which Muska quotes from memory. The rhyme scheme from this “immoral tale” drew Muska in: “His eight-months beard grew stiff and weird/ And it felt like a chestnut bur/And he swore by his gizzard — and the Arctic blizzard/ That he’d do right by her.”

So with the stage set, Muska began to compile a resumé that now reads like a vagabond poet’s. He graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in ’65, did his Masters work at Santa Barbara, taught at Wabash College in Indiana, then took a warehouse gig (which helped to birth “ELM: Warehouse Poems”), regretfully taught a “business report writing” course (where he told his students “Alright, it’s you and me against this material”), went to Paris and Bordeaux to translate French poetry, hung out at the Unicorn Bookshop outside San Diego,  played upright bass in various jazz ensembles, was approved by the Ohio Arts Council to be a poet in the schools, landed a job through the Arts Council of Greater Toledo at the Lucas County Jail and Toledo House of Corrections teaching a creative writing course to inmates, and eventually taught at the University of Toledo. Among other past projects, was an annual group reading/tribute to his hero, Jack Kerouac.

Muska has no regrets about not becoming “just another professor.” He came close, but never finished his dissertation, and claims if he’d done that “I would have probably felt some kind of moral necessity to get a faculty job like a million other suckers out there, and suffer through departmental politics and all that crap. Despite the fact I’m a poet, supposedly with my head in the clouds, I had the brains to put Susan (his wife) through law school, so I didn’t have to put the bacon on the table.”

His marriage also allows him to spend two months in Jamaica every year, a trek which provides him with inspiration. “My pattern of life is, for ten months I’m here in Toledo, where I ‘slave for de lady, mon’ and then she lets me go to Jamaica. I have a place where I go. I get up at dawn, make my coffee, then I sit and I write in my journal. Then I’ll do an hour’s work on an 8.5 X 11 sheet. The rule is ‘y’gotta fill up one page, if not more’.” After a bite to eat, he crosses the street to the beach where he usually stops at his favorite bar, The Firefly, to soak up the sun, the multi-cultural atmosphere and a few beers while capturing ideas in his notebooks.

Now, at 76 years, he feels a need to simplify. “I’m here throwing out books, decimating my library, saying ‘I’m never gonna read these books . . . someone else should read them.'” He pauses. “Yeah, I’m at that great emptying-out time of my life. The accumulation stopped about five years ago . . . it’s hard, it’s hard.”

One thing that gets Muska’s blood roiling is the Cleveland Browns. “The Browns are like my kid brother because they’re younger than me by four years.” Without fail, every Sunday during football season, his living room is converted into a game-viewing stadium, replete with emblemed caps, t-shirts, a huge dog bone and a regular crew of fellow Toledo creatives – like Joel Lipman, Tom Barden, John Rockwood – and they all hope for the best. “We’re Browns’ watchers, not fans,” he specifies. “They are my sorrow.”

The great French poet, Jean Cocteau, once said: Poets are liars who tell the truth. One can’t sense much of the liar in Nick Muska, but the poet in him is everywhere.