By Janelle Harb
Features Layout Editor
There is no doubt that our family of Canisius alums go on to do amazing things with the opportunities and education they have been given here. Justin Karcher, ‘07, has become an accomplished poet and playwright, and he began his journey right in our very own halls. His first book, titled Tailgating at the Gates of Hell, has been released by Ghost City Press and is a collection of poems about growing up in Buffalo.
“Canisius was by far some of the best years of my life,” Karcher said. “I can’t say enough of the wonderful collection of professors that the school has put together. You won’t find a better group of professors anywhere else in my opinion. Professors like Mick Cochrane, Eric Gansworth, and Jennifer Desiderio were so helpful in guiding my writing and personal development. I cannot say enough about what Tom Joyce and Mel Schroeder did for me. The world is a lot less interesting and inspiring without the two of them. I owe a lot of my success to the well-structured intimacy of Canisius. I certainly miss it.”
Most of Karcher’s poems feature attention grabbing titles intertwined with levels of dark humor. Some of these titles include “Snow Angels Going to Their First AA Meeting,” “The Great Abyss Where I Grew Up is Being All Modernized and Gentrified,” and “I Love Being Sleep Deprived in Buffalo” (one which every Canisius student can relate to).
“The titular poem, ‘Tailgating at the Gates of Hell’ came about from a party I was attending,” Karcher said. “I usually am writing poems in my head while engaging people or experiencing something, but the party I had realized felt like an amalgamation of every party I had ever been to in Buffalo up to that point. It was like a Dante-like journey through the hipster home, crocheting myself into the walls, hearing everyone’s secrets, engaging in an autopsy on myself hoping the organs inside me were like actual organs, that they would play sweet intense songs if I let them – and in a way, they did.”
“I wanted to come up with something so quintessentially Buffalo that anyone familiar with Buffalo or the Rust Belt in general could relate to,” Karcher said, “and it just struck me, as if the Muses smacked me in the face with a football, that we’re all tailgating at the gates of hell, partying outside our greatest fears but also with the knowledge that we’re giving it all, that we try so hard to pull down the curtain of rust and see the face of God or something deeper. In Buffalo we’re almost addicted to bad luck, but dig deep enough, and you realize a lust for bad luck is simply a mad desire for epiphanies. What better place for an epiphany than deep in the dirt? Sometimes you just have to dig it out.”
A majority of his poems concentrate on the changes that Buffalo has seen over the past few decades, as well as some of the darker aspects of the city and the misadventures of his personal life. “All the poems are inspired by true events, exaggerated versions of them of course,” Karcher said. “Imagine plucking the heart out of an experience and then dumping a whole bunch of surrealistic, rant-y seasoning on it and then handing that out on a rusted platter for the whole world to eat. I suppose that’s kinda how I view truth in terms of poetry. It’s honesty, but an honesty that is on steroids.You hope that readers gorge on the words like a breakfast buffet in Vegas after losing a lot of money the night before. Sometimes you have no choice but to feast on it all.”
Anyone who is from Buffalo knows very well how deeply the city becomes etched into their heart. Karcher describes this feeling throughout his poetry with his analogies to exclusive ideas and items associated with Buffalo. For example, he likened using loganberry to clean the wounds of its citizens over the more sensible idea of water. “In my heart of hearts…I truly feel that I’ve captured the essence of Buffalo,” Karcher said.
“I like to understand what makes [Buffalo] tick, the gold treasured away in her nooks and crannies,” Karcher stated. “The thing about Buffalo is that it doesn’t really have a literary voice in my opinion. Like when you pick up a book by Faulkner, you know it’s about the South, that Southern Grotesque is oozing out of the words. Or if you pick up a book written by some hipster in Brooklyn, you know pretty quickly that it’s about NYC. There are different kinds of languages at work with these styles and I am determined to help Buffalo (and the Rust Belt) build up its literary voice.” Karcher persisted, “Buffalo is experiencing a lot of change, rising out of the ashes so to speak, and I think it’s very important for the city’s creative energies to document this change. One day the gates will open and we won’t necessarily be tailgating anymore.”
His poems put into words a feeling that many people can relate to; having a wistfulness in looking at the past and longing to go back, but then to be in the present and be able to appreciate the grand, albeit intimidating, future ahead. Karcher’s title as a poet could be better renamed to more of a vagabond of time, constantly treading through the murky waters of his past and present timeline to piece together who he has become. Karcher layers the serious topics in his poems with levels of dark humor and sarcasm, creating an intellectual conversation with himself. He looks back fondly on adventures with friends through empty parking lots, loud bars, haphazard tailgating, and dating mishaps. Despite the different genres that these stories may come from, they all share the common thread of Buffalo, each with their own twist to somehow tie back into the city.
Karcher’s collection of poems speak for a generation of millennials and twenty-somethings that have yet to find an exact purpose in this infinite universe, and have stumbled into adulthood still clutching onto the idea of the American Dream that had been so deeply instilled in them. His personal journey of rising to overcome the challenges of his past mirrors the revival of Buffalo as a powerful city once more, revealing even more how much the city truly runs in the author’s veins. This collection of poems is perfect for anyone who can relate to that same sense of feeling lost but is heading in the right direction. Through this book, Karcher brings Buffalo into a new light that, somehow and in some way, casts the same shadow as those who inhabit it.