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Isaac Kirkman: Lewd, crude, tattooed...and mystic

Isaac said it had to be at night for me to see it the way it needed to be seen.
            Okay, then. I’ll follow that guy into hell, so night didn’t sound too bad. And besides, things had been dark lately anyways. I’ve never been in the American Southwest before. I’ve been to San Diego but that’s too far west. But here, with the scrubland and the high mountains and the quiet chittering of scorpions rushing away as we walk, it’s cool.
            Isaac has been following a sidewalk that doesn’t belong out here. There’s no roads, no houses, no people. Just the walk. As odd as it is, Isaac exudes a calm that radiates to me. Infectious.
            We make small talk, and as the moonlight turns the sandstone horizon into a flittering, glinting silver, Isaac stops. Squats down and concentrates on whatever is in front of him. I give him space. Quite frankly it’s a little intimidating and I don’t really even know what he’s doing.
            “Here,” he says, so gentle and delicate, as if he moves wrong he might shatter that word.
            I come closer, my footfalls slow and methodical.
            I haven’t been at peace for a long time. Something inside was derailed. By what, who knows. Well, I do, actually, but it’s been so compounded and ignored and then covered over then uncovered and made raw once again and eventually it became a cancer which gnawed at my soul and then
            No peace.
            But Isaac here, he said he could help. And something inside, Jesus maybe, that something said just listen. So I did. Isaac has been in worse—infinitely worse—and his wisdom was a balm.
            So now, he says again, “Here,” and I come over. Him, at the end of this sidewalk out in this barren but magical place, squatting down holding something he wants to show me.
            “It’s not barren at all, Ryan,” Isaac says, and I feel naked. Transparent.
            “I didn’t say it
            “I know.” He looks up, smiles. Genuine. “You just need to fill it with the good things you have.”
            “Stop filling it with the bad things you can’t do anything about. It compounds. You ignore and cover and then uncover. Now you have a cancer.”
            I can say nothing.
            But Isaac continues. He lists out things that I have told no one. Things he sure as hell shouldn’t know. Conversationally. Things I won’t write here. Things I won’t put into words because to do that would give them substance. More substance than I have already given them by letting them fester inside. He’s not disappointed in me, he’s not deterred or put off or disgusted. He didn’t walk me out here to kill me. He walked me out here to help.
He’s talking about things that I have worked hard to blow off because that is easier to do than it is to deal with them.
            “You have become what you worship, Ryan,” Isaac says, capping it all off. “Don’t like what you are? Stop worshipping those things then.”
            I nearly cry.
            “Here,” he says, and turns his body to un-shield what he is cupping in his palms. I look, and whatever it is, it shines with such an immense light I am blinded.
            “What is that?” I ask, one forearm covering my eyes. Somewhere I hear singing, so faint I think it might just be a buzz in my ears.
            Isaac stands up and whatever is in his hands, he carries it over to me. Presses it to my chest.


Define noir for the masses, please.

The authors interviewed previously have a far better grasp of the term than I have.  But from my perspective Noir was formed when Lucifer, the morning star, fell from grace. Noir is the absence of hope and light. Noir is the state of mind of all the people I knew over the years that grew up impoverished, abused, lost, or their parents locked up or dead.  Noir is the hopelessness that led them to robbing banks, kidnapping, drug dealing, prostitution, stripping, and murder. It’s a heartbreaking thing to try to help someone up and you think it’s clear and okay and then you find out they died or see them in handcuffs on the news.

I assume this has happened to you, then?

Of course. It’s sucks. You remember when these people were innocent. Firstly to understand where I come from and the people I write about you have to understand South Carolina. It’s a place with a very controversial and complex history, from the Trail of Tears, to the slave markets in Charleston, to starting the civil war, to the civil rights movement. It’s entrenched in a rebel mind state and it’s paid the price for it’s role in the civil war through reconstruction. South Carolina consistently ranks at the top in violent crime and bottom in education. I saw my generation crumble apart. One girl that I used to live with, who was dating a friend, I saw her face on the front page of the news, her and her current boyfriend went to go buy a car from a prominent Greenville, SC business man, a 71 year old former Sarah Lee executive, ended up stealing the car, kidnapping him, and killed him by wrapping his head in forty feet of duct taped to transport him to Tennessee. Accidental death. They had their two kids in tow with them. They took him and stuffed him in a refrigerator. Life sentence.
This one cat, an ill graffiti artist, came by my house to offer me his apartment to stay in while out of town, the next week, right before 9-11 he is on the front page of the paper, handcuffed, his sweatshirt soaked in sweat, surrounded by FBI, with the headline serial bank robber caught, or something to that effect. He had been successfully robbing banks all summer. I can go on and on, this is all rather typical for that culture of South Carolina.

It seemed like for a long stretch of time everyone was dropping dead from overdoses. It was so common it had no significant effect. It went like this, sexually abused as kids, heavy Christian indoctrination, more abuse, more church, no education, juvie, released, more crime, addiction, have kids born on drugs, daddy goes to prison, momma goes to prison, then they died, kids are taken by socials services, sexually abused by the people the state puts them with, church indoctrination, repeat.

I come from a good family, and amazing parents, and I tried helping people as long as I could, but everything I did failed, and I was being swallowed up into their tidal currents. I made a lot of mistakes. Failed at  a lot of things. So I left and rose up. I still keep in regular contact with a lot of their moms whose kids are adults and in and out of prison with baby mama drama. It’s easy to judge when you don’t know the people and don’t see the big picture, that this is a generational thing, sins and pain passed down for not just decades but centuries.

For example, The Trap, the crack game, the coke game, is big in the South for the black community.  A lot of my black friends used to sling crack out of their homes back in the day, their parents came up out of the civil rights movement, came from the same neighborhood as Jesse Jackson who came from my city, they got hooked on crack, and the kids had to take care of themselves and they turned to the hustle, be it selling shirts or drugs, or drawings, or rapping, or starting their own car washes. The survival instinct. It wasn’t that long ago that their families were slaves. They end up in prison working for nickels making stuff cheap for big companies. What’s changed?

Well, that is heavy. Really I like to make fart jokes and just in general, waste the reader's time. Think you can do that for awhile? No? Fine. Where does your grit come from?

My grit comes from God. It comes from the spiritual triumph over physical hardship. From burying my big brother, to the endless others lost, to my genetic disease Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that was supposed to kill me, the addictions it birthed that I conquered, and all the near-death experiences I had during my street days, it was the spirit world that gave me the grit to overcome it.

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a collagen-based disorder that affects your connective tissue. It is very painful and for many, terminal. Everything from vessels, organs, joints, you name, it affects.  I had my jaw sawed off and wired shut at 15, twin 24-inch titanium rods fused to my spine at 16, my right eye was punctured out, and then the retina detached. Your body is in a state of disconnect. I have to be on guard about my aorta rupturing as well.

The grit comes from knowing my problems are paltry to the suffering I have witnessed others endure. That I am a meager little amoeba and that what I have to do on this earth is bigger than me and that even my loss and health issues are blessings. When you have been down as I have, you are starkly reminded how far worse others have it, and it humbles you, it forges an empathetic grit.

What parts of Isaac wind up in your stuff?

 Everything. The spiritual part comes out in how I write. Every piece is aligned to astrological transits, and all the story titles and character names are numerological codes. There is always an esoteric story underlying the surface in my work.

Can you touch on that, please? Maybe give an example? And how did that come about?

Sure. I am regarded as the mystic where I am from. A title given to me. A God mystic. In numerology every letter is represented by a number. Each number has a symbology. Everything consists of nine numbers. In Avian Theories, the numerology of the title is the same as the city it’s based in. The vowels break down to the number 9. The consonants and overall number are the number 11/2. Each character has the number 8 in their names representing money, power, and the material world. 

I check before I write where the personal planets Sun, Moon, (not a planet but is significant in astrology) Mercury, Venus, and Mars are transiting with the generational planets like Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and what houses they are in at the time. If it is a transit that has a softer energy like a sextile or trine of Venus and the moon I will adapt what I write to that. If it is Mercury in Retrograde I will edit and be careful how I communicate. I line it all up like the ancients did. Every piece no matter the perceived significance is dense with codes for future mystics to decipher. Because of the dark material I write I am cautious with its preparation. I need it to be encapsulated in as much pure God energy as possible.

As far as how it came about, that is difficult to answer, even as a kid in Sicily I used to draw imaginary people, cut them out, and fill the backs with numbers representing their strengths and weakness. I was pulled towards things like numerology and astrology early on, more as if I was trying to remember what I did in a previous existence. The skills were installed in me. I used to travel as a hybrid gutter punk all over the place and did freestyle numerology readings where I would ask someone their birth name and date and calculate in my head their numerology and break down who they were instantly. 

Their is a video of that with Killah Priest, of Sunz of Man, and the Wu-Tang Clan floating around. I’ve done thousands upon thousands of dead on, on the spot readings over the years in my vagabond mystic days, always for free. People would come to me to pick a day for their child's birth, to get married, to name their children. I do not like doing readings anymore. Being a  God mystic, and a servant of the Lion of Judah, The Most High, in  the Bible Belt  was a difficult thing. Of, note most of my writing collective, The Low Writers, are atheists. Instead of doing readings I poured it all inwards, into my writing.

Spending so much time on the fringe of society it is only too natural to write about it. I really relate and have a lot of respect for Joe Clifford, Tom Pitts, and Brian Panowich. For their lives and their writing.

Word. Any other parts of your stuff in…well, your stuff?

It’s the old saying. Write what you know. I know struggle, failure, addiction, hardship, I have watched the people I know come in and out of prison; friends die from drugs. I have compassion and anger at the choices people make and it comes out in my writing.

 I have never driven a car so I walk everywhere. I am out in the rain, and blazing sun, walking miles and miles every day to get places, I see beautiful things, sun rises and sun sets, ornate churches, and all sorts of flora and fauna, but I also walk through gang territory and witness violence, shootings, threats on my own life at times, I see addicts passed out, and all sorts of dark and tragic things that people don’t see or hear when in their car with their speakers blaring. For safety I never have headphones. I need to hear if a car is coming or someone is going to come at me to rob or attack me. The key to survival is not being tough that will get you shot, but to be kind, considerate, and be able to read a situation really well and really fast and be able to adapt.  Walking through these places give me a very old world and intimate view as a writer.

Your stuff has a lyrical content to it that I've rarely seen outside of folks who turn to crime/noir/whatever after burning out on literary attempts. In fact, after I read your story "Portrait of Sister with Insects" I honestly said to myself, "here's one of Joe Clifford's literary friends writing better noir than I ever will," and I agonized over my comment to you. I wanted to give it as much praise as I could—because I think it is a fantastic story—but I didn't want to commit a grammatical error and look stupid. That’s how you’re your story impressed me. It had an effect. Where does the lyricism come from?

Too kind, considering the amount of gems in The Subtle Art of Brutality. My grammar is atrocious. Joe Clifford was a Godsend. He was so helpful and patient with the editing process, the grammar and helping me focus my vision on the pieces he accepted. He has my loyalty for life. As far as the lyrical, what has been seen in print has been incredibly toned down. I have been trying to get a better balance between metaphor and story.  It’s something my mentor and the founder of the Tucson branch of the Writers Studio Eleanor Kedney has been working on with me. Ron Earl Philips has been astute and helpful with the issue as well. Good people. I am very blessed for their guidance.

My path has been very different from the typical path of the literary writer. The earliest influence on the lyrical was my older brother Josh Kirkman, an immense writer, who passed away at the age of 32 in Beijing, China September 23, 2009 where he was working as a writer.  Though he was very educated I wasn’t. I didn’t finish high school (I got expelled from two separate high schools) nor did I go to college (I briefly attended the Joe Kubert school to become a comic book artist) so before I ended up at The Writers Studio I was self-taught. Aside from filmmaker Terrence Malick, who deeply influenced the lyrical tone, the rest is the fusion of two worlds, classic literature and Hip-Hop.

The first, classic lit: My Grandpa Dr. William G. McCuen, Who I am incredibly close to, wrote a book on the human brain and consciousness that highly influenced my style. He is a retired medical doctor, a deeply intelligent and solitary figure, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency during the Kennedy administration. He got me into reading James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Herman Melville. And of course Arthur Rimbaud. I didn’t have the guidance that the other writers were getting in local Greenville, S.C. programs like the Governors School or the Fine Arts Center so I went to my grandpa and he’d recommend books and I would pile up on them and return to the street world and read them amongst the felons and rebels. A lot of my friends during the era were coming out of Prison bids well versed and deeply influenced by Steinbeck and Hemingway, The Bible, and The Koran.

The other was Hip-Hop. MCs like Canibus, his metaphors and imagery, and Killah Priest his fusion of spirituality and the streets. And of course, the fusion of spirituality, social commentary, and street life in groups like the Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast and The Roots. Eminem’s ability to inspire people on such a global scale is incredible. The power of words. I consider my writing just another element of Hip-Hop like graffiti, break dancing, and rapping.

Though not Lyrical, Donald Goines, whose image is tattooed on my forearm, is one of my top three influences behind Janelle Monáe, and Canibus. He was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and the literary world completely ignores him. He was a street lit/crime writer out of Detroit, who was murdered at age 37. The popular belief was that he was killed by neighborhood criminals who found he was writing to close to the truth. I can’t imagine a greater virtue in a writer. I will say this much, as a person who spent his childhood in hospitals, I’d prefer to go out that way than to die in a hospital.

I want to die skydiving. I won't even open the parachute. Just SMACK. Over. Or, I'd like to be found at the bottom of an orgy pile, crushed to death. Maybe in a shark feeding frenzy. I'd defend myself all I could, but let's face it. Sharks, bro. I won't win but I'll go down swinging. I know of four stories you have up. What's next?

I have a few projects I am fine tuning at the moment.  One of them is about human smuggling and children being used as drug mules. My Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome slows my productivity so I am hesitant to speak too much on the projects I am working on for fear of jinxing them but I am hoping to get some longer pieces submitted to some of the anthologies. Until then I really hope to help the Noir community in whatever fashion I can. 
Also coming up, I am super stoked to be invited to be a member of Zelmer Pulp along with Rich Osburn and Chris Leek, to join you, Brian Panowich, and Chuck Regan. I will be making my debut with my piece entitled “This Protean Love” in ZP’s science fiction collection Hey! That robot ate my baby! I am really excited to step into the sci-fi genre with this collection of writers whom I tremendously respect. “This Protean Love” will by my fifth piece. Five represents change in numerology. The vowels or the soul of the title break down to 32/5 and it’s persona its consonants are also a 41/5. Protean equals change.
Zelmer Pulp is really manifesting into a great collection. I am honored to be a part of it.  Growing up reading comics you saw how Image got formed how it cool it was to see Portacio, and Lee, Silvestri, Liefeld, McFarlane getting together or Legend with Mignola, Byrne, and Miller, and I always wanted to be part of a group like that, full of really diverse talents and voices.

Tell me about your writer's group. How did it form, what kinds of things do you guys do, etc?

My favorite question. The Low Writers. Founded by Reneé Bibby. The Low Writers bring the art, physics/science, journalism, Hip-Hop, and writing communities together.

It has become a rather large group, far too many to name, but the major writers I am around with all the time  are Reneé Bibby, Christine DeCarlo, Becca Michaels, Lilian Kooyman, Carli Brosseau, David Anderson, and Al Basics. Really good human beings who write incredibly well. I expect a lot of good stuff for them in the years to come. Most are new to the writing scene, though some of the Low Writers work or have worked as journalists for newspapers. Christine is the host of the big monthly art/music show RAW arts which is pretty significant thing here in Tucson. The Low Writers do a lot of good stuff for the community.  That was important to me at this stage of life; I wanted to be around talented people who were also kind hearted and contributed something positive to the world. The mythos that is perpetuated that talent equates to being an asshole is farcical. That’s what I love about the Noir community. They write well, are tough or have lived hard lives, but are incredibly considerate and supportive. Kindness is a display of strength.

Most but not all of the Low Writers either are attending or attended the Writers Studio.
The Writers Studio is a writing program founded by Pulitzer winning poet Philip Schultz, a really down to earth, and good hearted guy who has been really nice and supportive. It’s founded in NYC but there are branches in Tucson, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. It’s a small, intimate, and tight nit program that produced Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan and crime writer Walter Mosley. Jennifer Egan is a really nice, humble, and kindhearted person. You don’t need a diploma or college back ground to take the classes so it was a perfect fit for me. Eleanor Kedney my teacher, who studied under Philip Schultz, got me out of a long stint of writers block. All the years on the streets and in that world I dreamt of being in a program like this, it seemed impossible, so it has been a place of salvation, and the Low Writers are the reward after nearly two decades of hardship.

Do you use your writing as a catharsis for some of the hardships in life? How so?

My good friend the poet Danny Clifford says he writes about the things that keep him up at night. I share the same sentiment.  I live alone, marriage and children with my health are not options, and I am often up all night brooding about things, Survivors guilt.  I think about death a good deal, and the things people I care about are struggling with, and I write. I have to compose something beautiful or meaningful from all of the things I watch people suffer through. There is this wonderful line at the end of Joe Clifford’s Choice Cuts. The final story. One Good Reason. The final page. When a man asks what reason should he spare the guys life? Loomis Arrington answers, “Because I could do better.” That sums it up. I am in a good place now with good people. My life has been a long series of failures and improbable events, but I feel through the grace of God and through my writing that I can do better. 

"Because I can do better" should have been the theme of Joe Clifford's life. God, that guy... but anyways. How has your time as a military brat influenced your stuff? 

A lot.  My Papa was in the Air Force, The Army and then the Navy. My Mom was in the army. I moved around all the time as a kid. I spent a crucial stage of my childhood on the island of Sicily where my Papa was stationed. Even if I don’t write about it directly, the sheer grandness and beauty of Sicily is everywhere in my style. Living on an active volcano. Terrorist threats. Earthquakes. Mafia. It was the best time of my life. My family was all together. The military brat life instilled in me a global viewpoint vs. a local South Carolina one. The characters I write about tend to be very ethnically diverse as a result of growing up on military bases. It’s what I saw, but the shift from being a military brat to a civilian is what defines me.

I went from having friends of all races, who were cultured, and who came from all parts of the world, to small town  civilian life in Sullivan, Indiana which had about 2000 people most of them white,

Not long after my return I found out church friends of our family Mr. and Mrs. Otto were murdered in Italy, when a dispute over their property line caused their elderly neighbor to shoot and kill both of them as their teenage daughter fled. The seed of being a Noir writer was planted then. You will always see the repercussions of crime in my writing. It is seared in me.

We then moved to Blue Ridge, South Carolina, where I witnessed daily the black kids getting jumped, spat on, their bus thrown rocks and bottles as the white kids screamed “SOUL TRAIN! And the teachers looking the other way.  Xenophobia at a very violent level. Every day the white kids with trucks lined with confederate flags, almost the entire school, beat on people just because they were black. As a response to this my writing switched from the fantastical to very social-conscious at the age of twelve. One of the first pieces was a fight between a group of white girls and black girls in the cafeteria. Kids could bully me, but when it was class time I’d rip them a new one with my writing, some teachers supported it, but most grew very tense the more vocal I got.

 The only thing I had then was my writing and my art. When I moved up to high-school I thought I was on my way as a writer, I thought I would continue winning awards and be on my way to a college life and a career as writer but no, they refused to put me in any photography, drama, or writing classes. So with every day bullying, my health in decline, the racial violence, and teacher’s apathy, I stopped listening to my teachers. I figured that any teacher that stood by and allowed racism to flourish were not teachers that had anything to teach me. So I started failing, and after the large race riot that removed most of the black kids from the school I was kicked out. I was stubborn and it caused me a decade and a half of my life but I don’t regret it. It created the voice I write with.

What theme song would play as you enter a room?

Janelle Monáe’s “Sincerely Jane.” She is the single most important influence on me as a writer and as a human being. 


There he is. Isaac Kirkman. Check out his two stories at FFO. He’s got one coming at some point from Shotgun Honey.

Next interview—Todd Morr, a label mate from Snubnose Press. Check out his book and get ready for the thrill ride of your lifetime. Maybe. He might be a dud. I don’t know yet.

Isaac Kirkman has been published at The Flash Fiction Offensive, Deadmule and has an up-coming story at Shotgun Honey. His story “Portrait of Sister With Insects” was include in Out of the Gutter issue 8 as a “best of” for the FFO. He is a member of Zelmer Pulp, a noir writing group as well as The Low Writers. He has lived across the world but currently in the American Southwest. He may be contacted at